Over the last couple of days I have been hearing rumours that England, Wales and Scotland are set to merge into a Team GB for the World Series as well as the Olympics. According to the reports, the team would then split into its individual countries for the World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Part of this has been driven by other nations not liking the way that Team GB have 3 chances of qualifying for the Olympics via the World Series under the current setup, whereas playing as Team GB would give them the same chance as any other nation. If this merger were to happen, it would be a big change to the Rugby 7s landscape, so I felt that the impact of this was worth having a look into.
Back in August, Team GB managed to completely prove my prediction that they would struggle at the Rio Olympics completely wrong by winning the silver medal as runners-up to Fiji. If the players were able to do that after only a couple of weeks together – compared to the other nations who had spent the best part of a year preparing for the tournament – then it is possible spending regular time together could give them an even better chance of victory in subsequent Olympic events. It could also lead to increased success in the World Series. England’s 2nd place in the overall standings of this season was the first time one of the Home Nations had finished in the top 3 since the 2011/12 season where England finished 3rd. By bringing in the top 7s players from Scotland and Wales, this will allow Team GB to be even more competitive in the World Series as they would have more top 7s players to pick from and they would also have a better chemistry than at Rio due to an increased time training together. It would also reduce much of the financial burden on the individual unions if they can all join together to fund one team. As has been noted by the media, it is not that long since the SRU considered cutting their 7s programme due to a lack of funds, but now they have won the London 7s 2 years running and are clearly a team on the up! World Rugby’s “School of Sevens” series of videos on YouTube also recently included a bit about the tactical use of different languages being used in 7s. In it, a number of English players mentioned how they were at a disadvantage as opponents could often understand them when they were speaking English, but they could not understand their opponent’s native tongue. It was also mentioned how Team GB used Welsh for the line out calls during the Olympics in order to stop other teams understanding them. Having a regular Great Britain team would allow them to start utilising the Welsh language and possibly also Gaelic to communicate on the field and have success against other nations.
While there are clearly a number of positives to merging the nations, in my mind there are also a couple of negatives that need consideration. Being able to pick a team from all 3 nations means that there are fewer places available for players, so we will probably see a potential development pathway – think New Zealand under Sir Gordon Tietjens – disappear as there will only be space for the sevens specialists. Perhaps even worse is the possible hindrance this merger could have on the individual nations’ chances in the Commonwealth Games and in the World Cups. If we look back to the 12-man Team GB squad that went to Rio, the squad consisted of 8 Englishmen, 2 Welsh and 2 Scots. Of those 4 players, only one will be expected to play in next year’s World Series due to 2 of them (James Davies and Mark Bennett) focusing on 15s and Mark Robertson retiring. I would expect a bit more balance in a Great Britain wider squad, but would still expect there to be an uneven balance between the 3 nations. While this may not necessarily cause problems when playing as Great Britain, it could put nations with fewer players involved at a disadvantage when they then split for the other tournaments as they would have less international experience than most other teams involved.
My personal opinion is that it would be good to see the nations merge for the World Series. However I think that it would benefit the nations to find a way to also keep their own individual national teams playing in some other tournaments outside the World Series so that there is still a decent degree of chemistry and experience for each individual national team.
As well as the prospective changes to the way these nations run their 7s programme, there is also talk that the World Series will be reduced from 16 teams to 12. I am not personally a fan of this. I know some people are worried that the quality of rugby would decrease if 2 spaces are freed up in a 16-team tournament by the Great Britain merger, but I feel that this could actually help the Series as a whole due to there being less chance of the promoted team being immediately relegated, which would allow emerging nations like Germany to improve by playing against the best teams in the world on a regular basis, but also being able to regularly compete with teams around their level so that they can still be competitive in matches.
What are your thoughts on the possible changes? Would you like to see either of these plans come to fruition, or do you have a better suggestion? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge