Feeling the heat in the Vale

Milford Mercury: SEVENS HEAVEN: With the Welsh squad after training. PICTURE: Bill Carne. SEVENS HEAVEN: With the Welsh squad after training. PICTURE: Bill Carne.

SURELY, life can’t get much better than the IRB World Series.

International rugby combined with countless trips to exotic locations – all in the name of a few brisk 14 minute matches which require little more than the occasional dart of pace.

And lest we forget the after tournament socialising.

Of course, those who know better will correctly treat such statements with disdain, and a trip to the Vale of Glamorgan for a session with the Wales Sevens squad for my thirteenth Commonwealth Games challenge confirmed what I already knew.

Namely, that such ignorance helps form one of the most common misconceptions in rugby union.

Indeed, the game of sevens has become a code in its own right, with the IRB World Series, that originated in 1999/2000, consisting of nine different meetings at venues across the globe.

In Wales, the game enjoyed a sudden hike in exposure in 2009, when the country stunned onlookers by winning the sevens equivalent of the Rugby World Cup in Dubai, beating Argentina 19-12 in the final.

And the current squad, soon to be cut to 12 for the Commonwealth Games, is training on a daily basis, starting at 7am and finishing around 2pm.

“We are aware we have a chance to make history in Glasgow,” said head coach Gareth Williams, who took over from Paul John in January after serving as assistant coach since 2008.

“No Welsh team has ever won a Commonwealth Games medal. We are aiming to qualify for the latter stages, which is a realistic goal if we get our preparation right.”

And such preparation will leave no stone unturned. Each training day incorporates a speed and power session with fitness coach Wayne Proctor, video analysis, a skills session, and weights.

Injured players will attend physio and undergo their own fitness training.

Traditionally, countries have used sevens as a breeding ground for youngsters with raw potential, with Justin Tipuric and Alex Cuthbert two significant names to emerge from time in the shorter form of the game with Wales.

“In these tournaments you are facing players of international calibre in front of 60,000 plus people,” said Gareth, who also serves as head coach of Crymych RFC in Division One West.

“Boys become men on the circuit.”

But as he explained, sevens also provides an opportunity to re-invigorate careers, as well as develop them.

“You have to be realistic and players who are first choice of their regions will always struggle to commit to the IRB World Series.

“But quite often in Wales you get contracted regional players who don’t actually play a lot.

“So playing sevens can re-ignite them. In the squad we have Jevon Groves, who played in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi and has come back into sevens at the age of 26.

“So it’s not just a young man’s game – there is room for players with vast experience and talent.”

One player with such qualities is captain Adam Thomas, who will join the Cardiff Blues next season after several seasons of combining sevens commitments with playing for Pontypridd RFC.

“In terms of fitness it’s a massive step up from the 15-a-side game,” he said.

“And until you have tried it you don’t realise. It can be frustrating when people try and portray sevens as a jolly – at international level you have to stay in top shape the whole time and we are both fat tested and fitness tested regularly.

“It’s a tactical game but at the same time, it’s extremely tough on the lungs.”

Indeed, Adam admits that after his first Wales session in 2010, his legs felt like ‘jelly’ a few days later when he lined up for Ponty to play Newport RFC.

“I will never forget that,” he said.

“It’s a different type of training here and my first time really hurt me.”

Not half as much, I suspected, as my first time was about to hurt me as I joined the squad for a skills session under the guidance of coach Barry Maddocks.

However, a few sporadic appearances for the ‘Wales’ Academicals and Crawshays teams aside, I knew the next hour would represent the closest I would ever get to the international involvement we all dream about as youngsters.

It began with a series of hand eye co-ordination drills with tennis balls, and I desperately tried not to look out of place after being paired with Lee Williams – a member of the afore mentioned World Cup winning squad in 2009.

I decided against introducing myself as someone who had frequented the annual Pembrokeshire sevens gathering in Newport.

The session then developed onto handling and possession based games. What struck me was that on paper, the drills would have appeared relatively simple. But the pace and precision with which they were executed at, was anything but.

Indeed, trying to keep up with the sharp turns and constant movement off the ball left me breathless in the blazing sunshine.

But at the same time, I was given an interesting insight into the intricacies involved at that level.
For the majority of us, a dropped ball or misplaced pass in training represents a mistake.

But in this session, such blatant errors were a distant concept. Players were constantly reminded about footwork, posture, and handling positions – and exercises were executed with speed and accuracy.

Furthermore, all sessions are filmed and then analysed – so there is no room for switching off or a drop in standards. And there is certainly no room for a drop in intensity, with little rest or reprieve between drills.

Training culminated with work on depth and passing, and despite failing in my attempts to remain tucked away on the safety of the wing – I did manage to at least avoid any fumbles.

And on a serious note, the session proved an eye opening experience for me, emphasising the game was about so much more than the much heralded fitness components of power, pace, and endurance.

“The biggest difficulty in sevens is coping with the extra space,” said Gareth afterwards.

“It’s surprising how many good players are unable to use the ball in space – it highlights decision making and exposes people.”

The sevens circuit will continue to grow, and the Commonwealth Games should provide the public with a chance to appreciate the manner in which the game has developed.

For it is now about so much more than the odd side-step or burst of pace. It’s about technical ability, decision making and physicality – not to mention dedication to training and  extreme levels of fitness.

And those who cannot appreciate that – are not true followers of rugby union.

Bill Carne's verdict:

As Fraser and I turned off the M4 at Junction 34 there was a real air of anticipation.

We were just minutes from the WRU’s Centre of Excellence at The Vale, where we were to meet Wales Sevens coach Gareth Williams and his group of players vying for inclusion in the 12-man Commonwealth Games squad.

Now for Fraser, who plays on the wing at Whitland RFC, this was a Commonwealth Games Challenge that he looked forward to above all others.

It gave him the chance to rub shoulders with international players in peak condition, many of who have been with Wales in the IRB World Series.

We had left Haverfordwest at 7am and it was at that time the squad had started training.

Involved is James ‘cubby’ Davies, who hails from Whitland and was voted ‘Welsh Sevens Player of the Year’ for the 2013/ 2014 season. The Commonwealth Games will be his last competition before reverting to the 15-man game with the Scarlets.

Following a rigorous indoor fitness session, players studied a video which outlined what the coaches were looking for in the outdoor skills session, with Fraser also taking part.

The weather was perfect and what struck me was the attention to detail. It was all done at pace but to Fraser’s credit he settled in once he had adapted to the speed of movement and passing.

Rugby balls were used but the squad also used footballs and tennis balls in handling practice - and I thought Fraser did well in one to one exercises which were rotated at speed.

By the end of the session, the squad had been working for three hours and after breakfast they were allowed a rest period before weight training as part of their daily schedule.

It was absorbing to watch and my only grumble was the fact that whilst I was all for mingling further over that breakfast, Fraser had decided he needed to get fitter and off we went, back down the M4 on the way home.

It was easy to see how inspired Fraser was with what we had seen and both of us hope the Welsh Sevens’ squad can become the first Welsh team to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games.

They face a real challenge as some sides have strengthened with star players (Bryan Habana is playing for South Africa) but if hard work, fitness and dedication is anything to go by they have a chance!

Tune into this week’s Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show, between 6-8pm, to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his training session, as well as Adam Thomas, Lee Williams and  James Davies.

For more on rugby in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.

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