Rugby's inclusion in the Olympics came too late for the England Sevens great, but he could still get to Rio by springing an upset at this weekend's qualifying event in Dublin
Ben Gollings is one of the superstars of the sevens sphere, discussed in the same breath as Waisale Serevi and Eric Rush after a career that yielded 220 tries and a record 2,652 points on the World Series. After his England days ended in 2011, he tasted success with Rugby Lions as a player-coach before moving on after the financial crisis that hit the Midlands club in 2012.
He then worked for World Rugby and as director of rugby for Sri Lanka, developing their 15s and sevens teams, whilst dipping his toe in the world of media punditry for Sky Sports.
His next job took him stateside as he became a business partner with old adversary Serevi. The company, now known as Atavus, helps grow rugby participation in the USA and Gollings has worked closely with all levels of participation, from grass roots to the national team.
His latest move, to coach the China women’s team, continues his globetrotting existence. We caught up with him ahead of this weekend’s Women’s Sevens Olympic Repêchage in Dublin…
So Ben, how did the post in China come about?
Whilst working with Atavus, I was approached by China to help develop their sevens programme. It was an exciting opportunity as I wanted to coach a team full-time and have a go at qualifying for the Olympics – I missed out as a player and would love to be there in some capacity.
I started with China last July, on a fixed-term contract up to the Olympics. Unfortunately we missed out on our first opportunity in the regional qualifier before Christmas but we now have one last chance at it in Ireland.
How are you enjoying life in China?
It has been a real experience. I played in Japan and so have had a taste of Asian culture but China is very different. We are based in an Olympic training centre; the team lives in, so we do everything in the training centre.
I haven’t been able to see too much of the culture outside the centre but it is busy and comes alive at night. China is vast and heavily populated – we are based in a small town of only eight million!
The food took a bit of getting used to as I don’t think there is anything in China that moves that they don’t eat. I have been served snake, eel, frog, crickets, guts and rabbit head, to name a few. It makes for an interesting time!
The language has been quite tough. I have learnt key go-to words that I can use to get by. Luckily, with phone technology there is a translation tool that allows me to communicate at a level that gets me around.
All in all, it has been good and it’s been incredible to see how such a big Olympic nation works with sport.
How much interest is there in rugby there?
The main rugby focus is on sevens – it’s hard for sports in China to develop if they don’t have an Olympic tag to them. There are a number of 15s teams but these are mainly run by the expat community.
In sevens each province has a full-time men’s and women’s squad which trains all year round in preparation for the China Games every four years. This is a huge event, seen in China as bigger than the Olympics, and if your province takes the top prize it holds a lot of weight both financially and for future work opportunities.
My belief is that if we can get the team to the Olympics it will have a huge impact on rugby in China. You’ll see it become a major sport in schools and build quickly from there. It would be great to see as they have an abundance of athletes to choose from.
Is there much financial backing for the sport?
The Chinese Rugby Football Association (CRFA) is only small and Government-run. All its funding comes through the Government and whilst it is an Olympic sport there is a reasonable amount of funds available.
However, the main funding resources for rugby come through the professional set-ups of the provinces. Each player is paid to play and has all their living costs covered while they are attached to the province. Some people may have a swayed view on this and think there is an abundance of funding, but this really isn’t the case.
There has just been a big announcement made by World Rugby and a big company in China called Alibaba that has agreed to sponsor the development of rugby in China over the next ten years for a sum of around US$100 million.
It will be very interesting to see how much of an impact this has on the sport. If used properly, it could be a huge boost and see China become an Asian powerhouse in rugby alongside Japan and see both men and women competing in sevens in the next Olympics.
What are the biggest issues for you as a coach?
It has been a very interesting coaching experience. The biggest problems I face come from culture and how the athletes perceive rugby. Nearly all the girls playing have come from very different sporting backgrounds and have been then selected to play rugby. This means they don’t necessarily love the game or have a passion for it.
They can’t be blamed for this. For them it is a way of life and rugby has had the time like other countries to grow its own culture. I have to look at other driving factors to motivate the players into playing, in order to get the best out of them and create the best learning environment.
Other cultural things can cause a problem. For example, they love a sleep, which on the one hand is great for recovery but when we are talking sleeping nearly six hours in the day it can have a negative effect on recovery and heavily reduce time spent improving. I have changed this but there is a certain amount of resistance to it!
Language can be a problem when understanding each other and the old saying ‘lost in translation’ can be very true, especially when working with management.
There is a lot of red tape also that can make managing the team and our movements very difficult. It is not simple as the Government controls everything.
The way I look at it, though, is that sevens is a sport where you have to adapt because you play in many different environments and therefore I constantly look at ways of adapting to make sure we can get the best outcome.
On the field, the girls’ skill level is very good. I have been impressed by it. Game awareness is probably the biggest area that we have had to improve due really to the (short) length of time they have been playing.
China had a strong Asian Sevens Series, didn’t they?
Yes, it’s the main competition for teams in Asia. In the past China has been quite a dominant presence. However, since the inclusion of sevens in the Olympics (announced in 2009) the likes of Japan, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong have developed quickly.
Last year’s Asia series saw us play in both finals but lose both. Japan took top spot with ourselves and Hong Kong coming second. On the one hand it was positive as we were consistent in playing the finals, but it was also disappointing in that we didn’t convert.
Japan definitely lead the way and are the most improved side on the series. This was a good position for us to finish as all efforts have been heavily focused on the Olympic qualifiers.
Who are the favourites to win the women’s Olympic repêchage in Dublin?
The repêchage is going to be a closely fought contest. The favourites coming into the competition are Russia, who were disappointed not to qualify out of Europe. They are a physical side and have proven themselves against the best sides, knocking over the likes of New Zealand and Australia.
They are closely followed by Spain and Ireland, who have both been playing full-time on the World Series this year. Spain are not a big side but work incredibly hard and hold onto the ball well and grind out wins.
Ireland are new to sevens having only really been going just over a year, but they can easily cause an upset. They are a strong, powerful side. This weekend they have the added bonus of home advantage too so they are going to be one to watch out for.
We have Ireland in our pool, along with Portugal and Trinidad & Tobago. Portugal play a lot like their men’s team and are very competitive. I haven’t seen a huge amount of them but I know we have to be very careful and not underestimate them. Trinidad are the champions of the Caribbean. They can play and have some big, powerful runners.
This tournament is different to any other as it’s a one-off with only one team getting the all-important position in the Olympics. There is going to be a lot of added pressure and every game is going to be like a cup final. One slip-up and it could quickly end your hopes and dreams. The team that can channel this pressure and handle it the best will come out on top.
If we can focus on our game and play to our potential, we have every opportunity to be there fighting it out on day two. We have to stay focused and not let the occasion get to us.
How have you prepared for the tournament?
In January I set about starting things anew. We have had a blank canvas on which to map out our plan and look to make some big changes in the way we play and view the game.
We worked very hard on building the correct foundations in fitness & conditioning and skill in the early part of the year. This was followed by a three-week tour to Australia that proved a great success on and off the field. It was designed to give the team a new cultural experience as well as some tough rugby.
Following this we have had to manage the squad through a three-series provincial competition and play as a team in Hong Kong. This was tough on the girls as they are not used to playing this amount of rugby back-to-back, but it was a good mental test for them.
We then took the squad to Europe to further our preparations. For us is it very helpful to play against European opposition and reduce the stigma attached to that that the girls have. We narrowly lost in France in the final and lost to a last-second try by the Dutch in Amsterdam.
We have had our ups and downs along the way but we are ready for Ireland and ready to fight for that Olympic opportunity and make our dream a reality.
Who should we look out for in the China team?
We have a number of very talented players in our squad, although unfortunately we have had to leave a few behind in China due to injury.
Our centre, known as Emily (the players all have nicknames), is very strong and athletic. She has been playing for China since the age of 16. She has a very calm head on her and makes things happen with ball in hand. It nearly always takes two or three opponents to bring her down and I don’t think she would look out of place in any national squad.
Xiao Qian (Baby Panda) is another great talent. She was awarded Player of the Tournament in the Youth Olympics in Nanjing 2014. She has a lot of pace and great footwork. She has recently recovered from a knee injury and it’s going to be really exciting seeing her back playing again.
Do you still play yourself?
I do play a bit and wish I had time to play more. I was never ready to stop when it finished for me – I loved playing and still do.
While I was based in the US I used to play for our company team and have also played in a few invitational tournaments over the years. With work, however, it isn’t that easy.
I do look after myself, though, and keep myself in good condition. My last bit of game time was in Amsterdam playing for the Mo Bros – a team raising awareness for the Movember charity. I enjoyed it a lot until I had the pleasure of tackling Henry Tuilagi, who practically squashed me! He’s a big boy.
Do you expect sevens to explode after Rio?
Having been involved In sevens from an early stage and watch it grow from strength to strength, I believe that when the public get a chance to experience it at Olympic level it is going to explode on a bigger scale than it already has.
Even in the likes of the US, when they see it first-hand at the Rio Olympics I think they are going to be addicted.
It is an easy sport to follow and has so much excitement. Fans love it, players love it. The underdog always has a good chance of spoiling the party. You only have to think what got it into the Olympics, with the 2009 World Cup where the top four seeds went out in the quarter-finals. Sevens is definitely going to keep growing. I’m looking forward to Rio and what the future holds for the game.
Can anyone stop the Fiji men’s sevens team winning the country’s first Olympic gold medal?
Certainly Fiji have set the benchmark in the build-up to Rio, taking out the World Series and showing great form along the way and showing they are major gold medal contenders. And you know they’ll have the whole of Fiji behind them on the day.
However, being a one-off event, all teams are going to come out with their eye on that gold medal and the beauty of sevens is that it could be anyone’s. You only have to look at the series this year and see how many different Cup winners there were (six) and how competitive it was. Some teams used the series to trial different players and combinations, readying themselves to show their best in Rio. It’s going to be exciting!
The Women’s Sevens Olympic Repêchage takes place at UCD Bowl on 25-26 June. Tickets cost from €5 and kids go free – click HERE to buy. Sixteen teams will compete for the final spot in the Rio Olympics. The pools are:
Pool A Russia, Samoa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar. Pool B Spain, Mexico, Venezuela, Tunisia. Pool C Ireland, China, Portugal, Trinidad& Tobago. Pool D Hong Kong, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Cook Islands.