The Rugby Football Union has scrapped its professional sevens programme. The England men’s and women’s squads were informed this week that once their contracts are up at the end of this month, they will not be offered new deals. Leading players believe this could severely damage medal chances for Team GB at the Olympics.
Players had been told last month to “explore their options” until the World Series was due to resume early next year, and that they would be out of contract for five months. However, senior players, including sevens all-time highest try-scorer Dan Norton and 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, Richard de Carpentier, have expressed their frustration at now being out of a job.
Players have also been left “devastated”, by the funding cut a year out from the Olympics. Some were upset that they received a one-line severance letter from the RFU after the initial virtual meeting where they learnt of their fate.
Olympic silver medallist Norton told Telegraph Sport: “The more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. I have been fortunate enough to give 10 years and I do know that professional sport is pretty ruthless, we gave our all but the way things have been done now, to take being so close to an Olympics and being sacked, it is pretty bittersweet to have to swallow.
“I am so devastated. I didn’t anticipate the RFU completely dropping the programme; it was a bit of a shock,” added De Carpentier. “The way our exit was done wasn’t great on a call and then I got an email last night with one line and that was it. The whole thing felt like we were treated like a commodity rather than people.
“To now be dismissed and sent an email from a person we don’t even know saying thank you for your service felt really soulless and brutal.”
It is understood players would be contracted on a tournament-to-tournament basis, but only a small number of sevens players have attracted the attention of Premiership clubs for XVs contracts.
At the Rio Olympics, the bulk of Team GB was made up of England players and it would have been the same for Tokyo, with the men looking to be medal contenders, wanting to go one better than 2016 and having won a Commonwealth bronze in 2018, followed by an appearance in the World Cup Sevens later that year. Norton, despite his commitment to sevens over 10 years, is concerned about Team GB’s performance.
“With the things that have happened at the RFU, the conversations we have had, they are not willing to lend sufficient support to win a gold medal.”
Unlike most Olympic sports, sevens does not receive UK Sport funding. An RFU spokesperson said: “We have approached UK Sport for funding and are exploring the option for a Team GB sevens team, we are also in dialogue with World Rugby about the programme for the World Sevens Series and when games are likely to be played. With no current support in funding we are not in a position to sustain the team in its current format.
“If the opportunity was still there I would obviously love that but you obviously want to go out there and win a medal and if you don’t know what going in looks like, who is managing it, all those variables that contributes to it,” continued Norton.
“As much as [there would be] effort and hope, you cannot win a gold medal on that. You want to be supported adequately and I don’t know if that would be the case with sevens.”
At present it is unclear as to who would coach the Team GB men’s side as England head of Simon Amor had been set to reprise the role he took in Rio but has been working as an attack coach for Eddie Jones’ England XVs side since the Six Nations. He was going to step back into sevens for the Olympics this year but with it postponed, no decision has been made.
De Carpentier, who is yet to become an Olympian having missed out on Rio, is desperate to make the Games but is worried for his family and wants to put his wife and son first, so much so that he is considering selling their home in London and living with family. “My major goal in rugby is to go to the Olympics, but at the same time I have to do whatever needs to be done to keep our child fed and to keep a roof over our heads.”
The players had been advised to live within 30 miles of their base in Teddington, south-west London, which now leaves other players in the same position as De Carpentier needing to move now that they are unemployed.
“The sacrifices some of the lads have made to stay in sevens have been big. Sevens in rugby terms is not well paid at all. Especially some of the young academy lads were not even getting paid enough to survive in London. They are struggling to make it,” said De Carpentier.”
Both players are disappointed at how they perceive the short form of the game has been treated by the RFU. “The whole time I have been at the RFU, the writing has always seemed to be on the wall for sevens. It has always felt as if the RFU are doing us a favour and sevens has been a burden on them,” said Norton. “Maybe, I am completely wrong but that is the feeling I have had as a player and that has been represented in cuts.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, which the RFU projects will cause losses ranging between £73m and £107m for this financial year and 20 per cent reductions over the next four to five years, sevens was at the sharp end of cuts. At the start of the 2019-20 seasons, there were even discussions that players would buy their own energy sweets to save about £300 per year for the RFU, while backroom staff were cut to a skeleton crew.
“I don’t think people understand how poorly the seven staff and players have been treated. Even more so in how we have been cast aside,” said De Carpentier. “I don’t know why they don’t value sevens. When you look at successful nations around the world, they use their sevens programmes really well.
“All the seven players want a shot to win gold but I feel like the RFU aren’t bothered. If you look at our results in sevens, we are Commonwealth Games bronze medallists, back-to-back World cup finalists, Olympic silver medallists; we are consistently in the top four or five in the World Series. I don’t see what more we can do for a performance on the pitch to reap the rewards off it. It feels, the better we do on it, the worse we get treated off it.”