Tom Mitchell searches for a word to describe the build-up to next year’s Tokyo Olympics before settling on “chaos”.
Chaos in terms of building a Great Britain rugby sevens side from scratch in just seven months from players who had been laid off. Chaos in terms of forging a team spirit and identity in a world still reeling from coronavirus. And chaos when he looks at the time frame and the journey to possible gold, even with a full-time sevens programme backed by National Lottery funding, which just months ago looked to be a non-starter.
The 31-year-old who captained Team GB to silver at the Rio Olympics says that although the funding for a full-time programme is what the players wanted, this is just the beginning of a gargantuan effort. “It is really good that we are going to have a full-time programme, which wasn’t always going to be the case. Rather than job done, it is almost ‘job just beginning’,” Mitchell says.
“It is a minefield of logistics but that is the world we live in now. I think it is going to be like that all the way through to the Olympics. I suppose that will create an exciting journey, there will be plenty of chaos.”
In August, Mitchell and his England sevens squad-mates across both the men’s and women’s programmes were made redundant. Both England sides had qualified for the Tokyo Games on behalf of Team GB. On Monday Telegraph Sport revealed that the Rugby Football Union, Scottish Rugby Union and Welsh Rugby Union had joined forces with co-ordination from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to secure funding from the National Lottery to create a full-time GB programme with players joining early in the new year. Welsh players were also let go.
Mitchell, who initially used the time off to “find himself”, has been training alone and played in the inaugural World Tens Series in Bermuda as part of the London Royals side who won the league. “A full-time programme is what we have been pushing for the whole time. We felt if a GB team was going to really compete, whether that was on the World Series or at the Olympics, it needs to be a full-time programme and it needs to be the primary focus for all the players and staff involved,” he says.
It was announced on Tuesday that Tony Roques, the highly rated former England sevens defence coach, will be head coach for the men, while Scotland women’s sevens head coach Scott Forrest will take up the equivalent role with the women. Former England sevens player and former England women’s head coach Charlie Hayter will be team leader while also being an assistant coach across men’s and women’s programmes.
James Rodwell, the most capped rugby sevens player of all time, will complete the coaching set-up, assisting the men’s and women’s programmes.
Players will be contracted full-time. But, as Mitchell explains, there are still many details to be signed off – most importantly, which players will make the cut.
“They need to nail down who the rest of the staff are going to be. The challenge as well is deciding who is going to be involved from a playing side,” he says. “And then the logistics around it; in the old days you would have said, ‘This is where we are based and this is the squad’. In the days of Covid, if people are in different tiers how do we meet for training? Is it easier to do camps or is it easier to do distanced stuff? Or do we train in little bubbles?
“It also, most importantly, has to be decided who are the best players in Britain to take this forward, bearing in mind no one has played any sevens since February.
“The selection is going to have to be based on things other than what it normally is because there is no form to speak of, other than with guys who have played XVs or 10s. What kind of shape are people in?”
Although World Series holders New Zealand have been back playing and training, and many have had Super Rugby experience this year, Mitchell backs the GB players to deliver.
“We will have a very short stint and obviously we have seen other teams are already up and running,” he says. “But the players we have won’t be starting from scratch. Some are playing in the Premiership, some have managed to get rugby elsewhere and we are all training. It is not like we have been sitting on our backsides for 10 months, but to have a successful team you have to have a strong team culture and you have to understand what everyone is buying into.”
Despite all the challenges, Mitchell believes GB can win gold. England’s men have become renowned as one-off tournament specialists and will draw on the experience gained from winning silver at the 2016 Olympics, bronze at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and being runners-up at the World Cup sevens tournament in the same year. He believes their recent travails will aid their quest.
“Absolutely, we can win gold. You look at the quality of sevens players we have got, the combination of England, Scotland and Wales. The challenge and the strife players have experienced. If we are able to channel those elements as well, we can put GB in a really strong position.”
The belief is there that out of the chaos could come success.