How tough is elite international rugby sevens? Sam Rider found out the hard way as England Sevens stars put him to the test at Twickenham
What it’s like to train with England Sevens
Think you’ve got what it takes to make it in international sevens? Nope, neither did we. But the chance to train alongside HSBC World Sevens Series all-time record try scorer Dan Norton, England captain Tom Mitchell and rising star Ethan Waddleton – as well as a bunch of apprehensive journalists – at Twickenham was too good an opportunity to turn down. Besides, at just seven minutes a half, how fit do you need to be?
Play to the beep
The answer – I discover as we step out onto the Twickenham turf – wouldn’t take long to find out. First up is the infamous ‘yo-yo test’. “Remember the bleep test?” asks 28-year-old Mitchell, with a mischievous smile breaking across his face. “Well, this is our version.”
Running along the touchline are a series of cones set up 20 metres apart. The goal is to jog out to the cone and back, rest for ten seconds, then go again, all timed to beeps that get progressively closer together. The problem is that this jog quickly turns into a dash, then a sprint, then a form of relentless respiratory torture.
“We perform the yo-yo test two to three times a season to test our fitness,” explains Norton, now 30, a yo-yo veteran with 372 World Series matches, 287 tries, a Commonwealth Games bronze and Olympic silver medal under his belt. England’s players are expected to hit level 19 as a bare minimum. I tap out at level 17 – my chest swelling with pride at my achievement, or is that heart failure?!
“You did pretty well,” acknowledges Norton. “Elite, we say, is level 19. We want everyone above 19. That’s a good gauge of fitness. From there we’ve got players getting to level 20 and 21 but it starts to become a slippery slope after 19 – you’re just holding on for dear life.”
Having emptied the tank on the yo-yo test in a vain attempt to impress the England selectors – I’m sure they’re watching – my heart sinks when I realise it’s only one fitness test down, two to go before the reward of lunch.
With my legs rapidly turning to jelly I follow the players and similarly jaded journalists back inside Twickenham, past walls emblazoned with red painted words of inspiration – SPORTSMANSHIP, RESPECT, TEAMWORK, DISCIPLINE, ENJOYMENT – to England’s state-of-the-art gym.
Imbued with renewed resolve I take a deep breath in preparation of what’s coming. On one side squat racks, Olympic lifting platforms, anti-gravity treadmills, pneumatic training machinery and futuristic rehabilitation apparatus line the gym. On the other, artificial green turf runs the length of the room, scattered with dumb-bells, medicine balls, battle ropes and weighted sleds. In other words, we’ve stepped between a rock and a hard place.
Ethan Waddleton shows us the ropes, demonstrating the power endurance circuit we’re about to tackle. At 21, he’s one of the new kids on the block in this England team in transition, having been spotted on a talent ID weekend not dissimilar to the one we’re being subjected to. On these open days, aspiring sevens players are put through a series of fitness tests to see if they’ve got the physical potential to make the grade.
“Endurance is one of the main things coaches are looking for,” says Waddleton, a relative newbie in the squad, despite already amassing 78 appearances on the World Series.
“The game involves so much running and it’s such a high demand on your body,” he says. “You obviously need to have good skills to play because in 15s you’re only passing the ball three metres but in sevens you’ve got to throw a massive ten-metre pass while running flat out. You’ve got to be able to play when you’re hanging, when you’re gassed and your lungs are burning.”
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Just five minutes into the circuits and I’m starting to know the feeling. The thought of throwing anything ten metres, bar my breakfast, is a pipe dream. Spotting the opportunity for a strategic timeout I ask Waddleton for tips for aspiring sevens players – even those, like me, on the wrong side of 30.
“My best advice is to play as many sevens tournaments as you can,” he says, having risen through the ranks at Ipswich and Colchester, then the academies of Northampton Saints and Saracens before signing for England Sevens in 2015.
“Sevens is such a different game to 15s and you only get better by playing it. Plus you’ll meet amazing people. It’s like rugby networking. That’s what I did at the backend of school. I played at Maidenhead, the Floodlit Sevens at Rosslyn Park and loads more before I got my break.”
Having thoroughly earned our post-workout recovery meal, the players agree to cut our final fitness test short. All we have to do is a one minute “blast” on the Wattbike – a sophisticated exercise bike that measures power output as well as distance and speed.
“When you’re recovering from an injury the Wattbike becomes your friend,” says Mitchell, clearly revelling in the drill instructor role. “It’s a pretty crap friend because sessions on the bike can be brutal – but it’s worthwhile to get back to the level you need for international sevens and, like a lot of our training, this is a mental battle too. When you think you’ve had enough, try to push through.”
Mentally, I’m fried within 20 seconds and the blood in my thighs feels like it’s turning to concrete. I grind out a few more revolutions before slumping over the handlebars and acknowledge the peak power I’ve mustered of 785W wouldn’t come close to the numbers Mitchell & Co would post.
One might ask what a static bike has to do with preparing you for the demands of international sevens, but the Wattbike is a prime example of how the sport has embraced cutting edge thinking in sports science.
“Sevens has always been experimental and pioneering,” explains Mitchell, pointing to the use of GPS for monitoring performance, concentrated beetroot shots for recovery and foil-lined suits to maintain optimum temperature before kick-off.
“Everyone uses GPS now but sevens is where it was first tested. Now every morning we have our heart-rate variability monitored, which helps predict if we’re getting ill or susceptible to injury.”
Attitudes towards mental health and the psychological demands of the game are also starting to change, acknowledges Norton.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learnt over my career is how important it is to mentally recover between matches. I’ve learnt how to use music to mentally switch on and off. It’s vital to conserve energy. You can’t stay hyped from 10am until 6pm across a tournament – you’ll just burn out.”
Witness the fitness
Thirty minutes, one hot shower and two-and-a-half jerk chicken wraps later I’m beginning to feel slightly more human, as I reflect on the day’s eye-opening experience.
Today was simply a snapshot of the power endurance and stamina required for the game, forgetting that players have to dodge or derail opponents charging at them like runaway trains throughout a tournament weekend.
The physical demands are frightening. According to one study on the game published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, players typically record above 80% of their maximal heart rate for threequarters of a match and above 90% for almost 40% of a game.
Across a World Series weekend players can expect to repeat that six times. Norton’s 33-year-old team-mate James Rodwell holds the record for consecutive tournaments with a mind-boggling 69 in a row. “I’m lucky, I’m quite robust too,” says Norton. “But mainly because I like to stay away from contact.”
Are you not entertained?
Sevens players battle extreme physical fatigue, not to mention withstanding multiple impacts, mental pressure and, given the sport is renowned for chasing the sun around the globe, blistering heat.
Just spare a thought for the men and women providing the entertainment on the pitch next time you’re revelling in the stands, refreshing beverage in hand.
“Today was just a taste of the kind of training we would normally do in a week,” Norton later explains. “It was seven hours condensed down into an hour and a half. But it was a good shot in the arm for what it’s like to be a sevens player.”
Seven hours? A day? And I’m spent after just 90 minutes. With that, I realise, I might be the same age as Dan Norton, but I’m definitely getting too old for this.
This year’s HSBC London Sevens takes place at Twickenham from 2-3 June. To be part of it, ticket information can be found here.
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