London Sevens: England going ‘hell for leather’ with Olympics on the line


Seven-a-side rugby is a game crowded with super-fast sprinters, but among the speedsters it is Norton who wears the crown. He’s amassed a record 332 tries during his 10-year career — a tally that’s likely to increase at this weekend’s London Sevens.

And while many sprint-based athletes lose their raw pace over time, Norton’s has endured. The England winger was clocked hitting speeds of 37km/h in London last year, outstripping rival speed merchant Carlin Isles in a 90-meter race to the try line.

Those are impressive speeds in their own right, let alone when you consider he runs on grass with a ball tucked under one arm.

“I do think I’m able to run as fast but I don’t think my acceleration is quite as quick as it was beforehand,” 31-year-old Norton tells CNN.

“I still feel I’m able to hit my top speeds which is quite nice. You’re just trying to keep as young as possible without wrecking yourself at the same time. It’s a hard balance, but I think I’m there or thereabouts.”

Keeping pace

Although many top rugby sevens players drift towards the 15-a-side code over the course of their careers, Norton is a stalwart of the sport with 431 appearances; only former New Zealand captain DJ Forbes has more.

It’s the young players in the England camp, however, that Norton leans on to stay sharp — “people like Ryan Olowofela,” he explains, “one of the young guys on the team. He’s rapid; really, really gifted and runs really well with a really long range.

“I’m running against quick guys which keeps me young and makes me have to run faster and keeps that competitive element as well. I have to run fast to compete, I obviously don’t want to lose to them … If you’re not on your mettle, then they’ll just tear you up.”

The HSBC World Rugby Sevens series is nearing its conclusion with just London and Paris remaining on the men’s 10-stop tour, and England will be relying on Norton to add to the 33 tries he has already accumulated this season.

Currently fifth in the overall standings and 14 points behind fourth-place South Africa, if England can creep into the top four then automatic qualification for the 2020 Olympics as Great Britain is secured.

“We’re currently sitting fifth as the standings and there’s still a lot of rugby to be played,” says Norton.

“It’s obviously quite a tough ask, but at the same time we’ve got an opportunity to play at Twickenham in front of our home crowd, our family and friends get to come and watch.

“Anything can happen in sevens, especially as this season’s shown. South Africa could lose in the quarterfinals and we could go on and win the thing.”

Joining forces

As England’s players have focused on what happens on the pitch, off-field problems have also rumbled away.

With the Rugby Football Union (RFU) set to miss revenue targets ahead of the 2019-20 season, cutting the sevens program was being considered as part of an attempt to make savings of $13 million.

Senior players like Norton and front row forward Phil Burgess — who’s scored 76 tries in over 250 matches — are used to tightening purse strings within the England Sevens set-up.

When both players started their careers, for example, the team would arrive at venues 10 or 12 days before the tournament starts; nowadays, more time is spent training and preparing on home soil.

“I think we’ve just adapted to it,” Burgess tells CNN. “The time that we spend abroad is potentially less now than it used to be … That sort of stuff has affected us slightly but we just deal with it.

“You just make adaptations … I guess in any business, whatever changes that come along, we just have to deal with the situation in front of us. We’re in a group that aren’t too precious. We just go with the flow a little bit.”

One method of cost-cutting advocated by the RFU is for England to merge with Wales and Scotland on the world circuit to compete — as is the case during the Olympics — as Great Britain.

“I think it makes sense,” says Burgess, who was part of the team that won silver at Rio in 2016. “I think there would be a really competitive team put together and I think it would only benefit GB in that sense.

“Whether other nations or unions and whatever can agree to that, I don’t know. But the strategy of a team coming together two months before an event to compete, versus a team training together for four years to compete — it makes sense to me.

“I would miss playing as England. But in terms of the biggest opportunity or tournament potentially within the rugby sevens world, I think it is the Olympics. And I think if you are going to be targeting that, I think that’s the way that I would go about it.”

These are all questions for the long-term future of sevens. The priority for the England players now is to put on a show for the home fans in London.

“We obviously spoke about it at the start of the season — how we were aiming for top four, and how we want to achieve that for the Olympic qualification,” says Burgess. “We’re going to go hell for leather for the last couple of tournaments and see what happens.”

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