Uncovered: Sevens Marathon Men
Story and Photo: www.irbsevens.com
All 15 travelling teams have now arrived in Wellington, joining the hosts and defending champions New Zealand for round four of the HSBC Sevens World Series, and one common topic among the players and coaches has been the 'recharging of batteries' since the 'brutal' three weekends in November and December.
Never before had three rounds of the Series been played back-to-back and, while they provided a non-stop spectacle for the fans attending, watching around the world or following online, the players must have felt it.
All too often, the ability of Rugby Sevens players to run almost continually at 75-100% is taken for granted, so easy do they make it look. In the course of a Sevens match they are quite literally sprinting for seven minutes, almost non-stop, and the levels of fitness required are up there with the very top athletes in the world.
So imagine the immeasurable value to the coaches of the players able to withstand the relentless onslaught and physical drain - the players able to put their hand up for selection time and time again.
In the first three rounds of the Series in Australia, Dubai and South Africa this super-human quality was tested all the more. Indeed, special dispensation was granted by the IRB for an extra travelling squad member, and to allow for all five subsitutions to be made in each game, rather than the usual three.
Over those three rounds the players had to deal with six gruelling match days in just 16 days. The maximum number of games any one player could have started was 18 - three pool games, a quarter final, a semi final and a final at each of the three tournaments. That's 18 warm-ups, 18 bursts of adrenaline, 18 kick-offs, 18 first tackles, 18 half time talks, 18 warm-downs and 18 come-downs. All energy-sapping, all taking its toll.
It started with round one: everyone fresh, a new season. Round two: the first casualties homeward bound and others nursing bumps and bruises but the majority still fit for purpose. Round three: A lot of tired bodies and minds, the feet willing but the legs sometimes less so. Surely no player could possibly have started every match?
In fact, there were two. Let's call them the Marathon Men - Samoa's former Under 20 captain, Afa Aiono, and Scotland's skipper, Colin Gregor, started every single match.
Behind them there were nine players, from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and Scotland, who missed out on just one team selection, and 12 others who sat out just two games from the start.
Will these same players be the go-to men for their coaches this weekend in Wellington? And even more interesting will be a week later in Las Vegas, where the narrow gridiron pitch will also play a key role in tactics and team selection. For now, though, take a bow Marathon Men.
18 starts - Afa Aiono (SAM); Colin Gregor (SCO)
17 - DJ Forbes, Tim Mikkleson (NZ); Ed Jenkins, Greg Jeloudev, Jordan Tuapou (AUS); Bernado Botha (RSA); James Rodwell, Mat Turner (ENG); Peter Horne (SCO)
16 - Chris Cracknell, Marcus Watson (ENG); Emosi Vucago (FJI); Mathieu Acebes (FRA); Patrice Agunda, Dennis Ombachi (KEN); Solomon King, Toby Arnold (NZ); Paul Delport (RSA); Mike Palefau, Shalom Suniula, Zach Test (USA)
Video: Story of the Series so far