England Sevens captain Tom Mitchell admits the future for him and his team face much more serious challenges than the sleepless nights he used to endure in Las Vegas when drunk guests would noisily make their way back to their rooms.
The RFU’s announcement this month that it would be cutting funding to the Championship has seen dormant anxieties over what the future holds within England Sevens resurface.
In March 2019, reports suggested the RFU were seeking to axe the Sevens programme and approach their counterparts at the Welsh Rugby Union and Scottish Rugby Union and British Olympic Association to create a Team GB, a move which would save the RFU around £2m.
And while nothing concrete has been decided, Mitchell explained how the Championship cuts have stoked concerns within the group ahead of their appearance in the inaugural LA Sevens after Las Vegas was ditched from the World Sevens Series calendar.
“The whole financial situation within the RFU has been talked about quite a lot,” Mitchell told The Rugby Paper. “It’s not ideal and I can understand that the decision-makers have probably got a tough time, but it has definitely made life more difficult for us in the sevens programme, no doubt.
“The initial article came out two days before we were set to play in Vancouver about the programme being scrapped. You can imagine that was interesting to wake up to that and the questions that were being asked within the squad.
“We were getting messages from home saying, ‘oh, hear the sevens programme is being scrapped’ and we were in Vancouver like ‘oh, really? This is the first I’ve heard of it’.
“I think that creating one Team GB team will probably be the best move looking forward. I don’t know what it looks like, I haven’t had enough conversations with the people who put these things together and I don’t have the expertise. But Sevens is an Olympic sport, that’s what the biggest goal in the sport is for the coaches, for the players and everyone involved.
“The difficulty is getting three unions, who all have very different aims and processes, to come to one agreement. There are valid arguments for not doing it as well, but from my perspective that is probably the best route to go down.
“We still view Sevens as something which is part of rugby and in the Olympics. Whereas in a lot of other countries it is an Olympic sport in its own right and that is the only way it will be perceived.
“If that is going to be the future for the game, then it makes sense for the team that competes at an Olympics to be playing together as one whole programme for the four years leading up to it.
“I think there’s still room for having Home Nations sevens teams, maybe as a development pathway, or something like that. But there are obvious challenges in not having a Team GB on the World Series and then creating one for a one-off tournament when it’s the Olympics.
“The big question I have is, as a Team GB team had we not won a medal and done worse in Rio, say if we came last, would they have restructured things after and done things differently.”
Waiting to see what plans the RFU has for the programme once the new Olympic cycle begins after the Tokyo Games this summer, Mitchell has watched on as captain as former teammate James Rodwell has provided the glue to keep things together by taking charge of current duties in lieu of head coach Simon Amor being away in the Six Nations.
In Amor, who will join Eddie Jones’s staff permanently as attack coach after the Olympics, Mitchell and the programme have an ardent defender of the power of good that Sevens can do.
“There are times when I feel personally, you adapt and roll with these things to make the best of it, but sometimes I do feel like maybe that stops me from making more of the issues and maybe I should be doing more.
“Working with Simon I’ve been lucky to have conversations with him that he probably doesn’t have with other players, we’ve got a good coach-captain relationship.
“The great thing about Simon is he goes into the RFU as someone who has played the game, coached the game of Sevens for however many years at the top level and done a great job. He believes in Sevens and what it does for the people involved directly in it but also the wider impact on the landscape within rugby – Simon believes in in that and will fight Sevens’ corner.
“In that respect we’re lucky to have someone that will do that and him doing that has taken a bit of the heat off me.
“If we didn’t have Simon, or if he had left, then things might have been a bit different.”
To play in the LA Sevens offers Mitchell something far more meaning than a distraction from what the future of Sevens holds.
With a sharp focus on adding to his silver medal won in Rio four years ago, the 30-year-old returned to the Sevens circuit after five months out for the legs in Hamilton and Sydney, where England claimed two fourth-place finishes.
“It was really nice to get back into it and just playing again was brilliant,” Mitchell said, having missed the first two rounds in Dubai and Cape Town as he recovered from a shoulder operation.
“It helps you realise why you do it all; the grafting in the gym to get back fit so that you can get back running and chucking the ball around with the lads.
“Vegas was a tough place to be in the lead up to the tournament. It is in the middle of nowhere and you don’t go to Vegas to be a professional athlete and eat healthy food, and get a good night’s sleep. Everyone else is there trying to write themselves off by partying and having a good time. You would always get someone stumbling back at 2am or 3am in the morning. We still enjoyed it but it was a bit of a challenge in the build up to the tournament.
“Let’s make no mistake the Olympics is the pinnacle, for this year and for the four years. But we still go to all these tournaments and we want to win them.”
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