Having already stopped in seven locations that have taken in countries as far afield as Hong Kong, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, the penultimate weekend of rugby will feel a lot closer to home. May 4th will see the start of the Emirates Airline Glasgow Sevens, where the world’s top 15 sides – as well as Rugby Sevens World Cup hosts Russia – will play for the last few available points. The Scottish meeting has an added twist, however, as it is the last chance for the lower teams to avoid the dreaded relegation play-offs.
Teams placed 13th, 14th and 15th after Glasgow will be forced to defend their status as ‘core’ teams when the action moves to Twickenham in London. The unlucky sides will face off against Asian champions Hong Kong, plus Russia, Zimbabwe, Tonga and Georgia for three available places in the 2013-14 season. As it stands, Portugal and Spain are almost certain to be making up two of those numbers, but the remaining place may well be a toss-up between Scotland and the United States.
Scotland’s recent form has belied their current place in the standings. Although they’ve failed to win any silverware this calendar this year, Scotland have three times reached the final of the Plate competition (the second tier out of four), only to fall at the final hurdle to the likes of USA, Canada and New Zealand. Part of their struggles can be discovered in their performance in Hong Kong, where Scotland only reached the semi-finals of the Shield tournament, the lowest of the four competitions. They’re now in a precarious position heading into their home leg, a points tally on par with the United States that is the only thing protecting them.
The pools have already been drawn up for the showdown and it’s another tough ask for Scotland. They find themselves squaring up to old enemies England, with league leaders New Zealand lurking in the opening match. England’s first game is against Portugal, who they demolished 40-0 in Tokyo last weekend. Wales have their own challenges over in Group D, as they wait to meet up with France, USA and Russia.
England are practically safe from the relegation tussle and it’s no surprise they’re already turning their attention towards next season. In the lead-up to the campaign that takes in the FIRA/AER European GP Series, the 2014 Commonwealth Games and, of course, next season’s World Series, England have recently announced the signings of three new players, the biggest of which being former England U20 captain Alex Gray. Having played alongside future stars Owen Farrell and Joe Launchbury, the London Irish player has committed to the Sevens format at a time when the Olympics are already beginning to loom. He’ll be joined by Championship players Luke Fielden and Phil Burgess from Newcastle Falcons and Cornish Pirates, respectively,
Now a recognisably global sport, it might not take for long for many to switch from the 15-a-side game in a bid for glory. The union senior side is a tough one to break into and the prospect of playing for Great Britain at Rio may be too much to turn down. It’s telling, though, that it’s not really anyone’s long-term career plan. “Sevens is always something I’d wanted to be involved in and while I can see myself returning to 15s at some time in the future it is a great way of developing my game,” Gray told the RFU. “England Sevens operate in a high-pressure environment wherever they play around the world and it’ll be a great way to test myself and my skills.”
A test, then, but little more. Representing England at the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup may always be a higher honour than being part of Team GB, but the addition of young blood into a mediocre sevens side is vital for England’s prospects at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. They topped their group in 2010, before edging Samoa in the quarter-finals, but were unlucky to be drawn against the powerhouses of New Zealand next, who would eventually nab the gold medal. Losing to South Africa in the bronze medal match meant they were unable to come close to improving on their silver in 2006.
Before all that, Wales look to defend their crown at the World Cup in Russia this June but, with this likely to be the last edition, it’s become a drop in the ocean to what awaits the unified Great Britain team in three years.