Perhaps it was all scripted and written in the stars
England Sevens coach Ben Ryan will reach a personal milestone in the Port Elizabeth leg of the IRB World Sevens Series this weekend.
Ryan will celebrate his 50th World Series tournament with stalwart Dan Norton possibly reaching 100 career tries this weekend.
Reflecting on his tenure to date, Ryan said the side are in a vastly different position than the one they were in when he took over the reins.
“The difference in our programme from my first tournament in Wellington to here is almost polar,” he said. “I have been obsessed with developing performance and making constant steps forward.
“There are lots more to do and there will be disappointments on the way to negotiate and get past as well as the successes of which I’m sure we will have plenty in the future too.”
Ryan identified witnessing the evolution of squad members and playing a role in the development of players who have gone on to achieve success at Test level in the 15-man code as career highlights.
“Seeing a player grow when he is with you in the squad is a pretty special feeling. That initial phone call telling him you want to invite him to an England training session has changed the lives of many past and present players,” he said.
“For some, a brief stay in Sevens has been part of their pathway to international glory with England at senior level. The likes of Ben Foden, Danny Care, and Ben and Tom Youngs were a joy to coach and watch playing Sevens. Many others like them have had Sevens as part of their journey to either the fringes or the centre of England teams.”
England will have their work cut out for them this weekend, having been grouped with defending Port Elizabeth champions New Zealand, Fiji and Scotland. Ryan, however, finds it a fitting draw considering the history between the sides.
“It’s actually pretty fitting that we play New Zealand, Fiji and Scotland in our group this week, too. Scotland were my first opponents as England head coach and 300 games later we play them again in South Africa," he said.
“New Zealand and Fiji have provided some of our most memorable battles. My first win against New Zealand was at Twickenham with a sensational overtime try from Tom Biggs, one of my all-time favourite Sevens players.
“Since then we have had our fair share of wins over them, notably winning the Wellington final from 17-0 down and the London Sevens in 2009 from 19-0 down.
“But the standout performance was when we ran riot in the first half to beat them in the semifinal in Dubai in 2008 with Ollie Phillips leading the charge that day.”
Ryan said their greatest rivals, New Zealand and Fiji, have contrasting strengths. He said New Zealand’s success stems from a settled core group of players whilst Fiji benefit from peerless depth.
“It’s amazing really that Forbes, Cama, Mikkleson and Raikabula have remained largely fit, healthy and constant picks pretty much throughout those last 50 tournaments,” he said.
“While the New Zealand teams we have played have had everything built around this quartet, the Fijian sides encountered have had a lot of different players illuminating proceedings.
“We have had probably our most open games against these guys and some of the tries the two teams have produced in these encounters have been phenomenal.
“They do everything with such humility and pride that I always savour playing against them. For whatever reason, the matches we have are nearly always breathtaking to watch.
“So, perhaps it was all scripted and written in the stars that those three opponents would be facing us again now we’re fighting to get out of a tight corner.”
Ryan has neither luxury - continuity or depth - to draw on this weekend, his squad being ravaged by injury this year. Tom Mitchell is the latest key player to join the growing injury list after suffering a broken leg on day one of the Dubai tournament last weekend.
“I can’t imagine many teams would manage to do without so many key players on the sidelines as we currently have,” Ryan said.
“It’s been unprecedented for us and all the injuries are pretty isolated incidents so it's not a question of spotting a theme from our training or conditioning. It’s purely bad luck.”
Ryan has remained optimistic, though, and feels the squad are nearing a turning point.
“Perhaps in some sadistic way, we are enjoying the situation. It provides us an opportunity to show our resilience and reinforces to me that the path we are on is the right one,” he said.
“As a coach you have to be true to your values all the time and have a clear vision. We certainly have that and this week has been about improving execution. We will get back to winning ways soon and the record win, 40-12, against the Australians began to light that fire on day two in Dubai.
“With this group and players returning to add competition, once the winning run starts it will keep going. I like the spirit the team are showing right now and some of the newer members are really starting to stamp their mark on things so there are lots of positives.”