Rugby Sevens Olympic dream reignited by Lottery funding lifeline

Written by Amos Wynn

After months of uncertainty, England Rugby Sevens have been handed a short-term lifeline thanks to National Lottery Funding, which will enable them to compete as part of the Great Britain squad at the Tokyo Olympics.

The 2016 Rio Olympics provided plenty of highlights, but one of them could arguably be the debut of Rugby Sevens at the event.

The fast-paced matches and end to end action was something that caught the eye and made for an excellent watch.

With only seven players per team, and each game lasting 14 minutes, it is unique to any other format of rugby.

England won the first ever seven-a-side tournament to feature national teams in 1973, as well as winning the inaugural World Cup twenty years later.

The nation has also produced record holders in the sport, with Ben Gollings scoring the most points ever on the Sevens Series, whilst Dan Norton has scored the most tries.

Even though the stars of the sport may not be household names, they have achieved success on the international stage.

In the last five years, the men’s GB side have won an Olympic Silver medal in Rio, as well as a third-place finish for England at the 2018 Commonwealth games, whilst the women’s also brought home a bronze medal from the Gold Coast competition.

They have also competed in the HSBC World Series since 1999, coming head-to-head with some of the best sides in the world.

Despite this, the future of the sport was plunged into danger last year after the RFU decided to stop funding the program, following the Covid-19 pandemic and the postponement of the Olympics.

In the months that followed, the lives of the players were turned upside down, both professionally and personally.

Fortunately, with the help of National Lottery funding, a Great Britain team will compete at this summer’s Tokyo games.

 

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Dan Bibby, who was part of the team that won silver at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, feels the team deserved more, after being told the program was being cut over video call.

He said: “After playing for nine years and giving so much, it was weird to hear the news over Zoom. From the business side of things, I understand, but I feel we could’ve been treated a lot better. There’s always a place to be kind, and I think they failed with that.”

“It made me sad that it could’ve been over, and that’s how my career would’ve ended. For some of the lads, it is the end of their journey, and they won’t get another shot at the Olympics.”

Dan Bibby in training for Team GB.

Due to the financial strains caused by the situation, Bibby and his family had to relocate from their London home.

“Being a northern lad, moving back has always been in the pipeline, but we had to do it sharpish, because without the job we couldn’t afford the mortgage. There was no help, we even asked if we could be furloughed, but were told it didn’t make financial sense.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the sport, the 30-year-old says he wanted to be ready for when a solution was found.

“I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I got into the best shape I could. I want to give everything this year; I’ve been given a new lease of life. I’m enjoying being back and doing the things I took for granted.”

With National Lottery Funding ensuring there will be a Great Britain team at the Tokyo Olympics, Bibby hopes to go one better than Rio.

“It would be a pretty special story if we could get gold. I’m just grateful for the little things, because it’s a luxury to be playing again.”

“I’ve been pushing myself, but staying fit on your own isn’t the same, I never reached the level of exhaustion where I can’t give anything else. It’s weird how you miss it.”


During his time off from rugby, Bibby stepped up as a full time stay at home dad, which he jokes at times was tougher than pre-season training.

“It has been good and bad,” he laughed. “It definitely tested my patience and mentally prepared me for this. My four-year-old is really into sword fighting, so I’ve got some scars on my fingers.”

The extra time at home has prompted Bibby to think about his future beyond the Tokyo games.

“I think it will be my last Olympics, travelling has taken its toll, I’ve been selfish for a long time. I have a young family, so I don’t want to be missing out and it’s hard to leave them.”

“The pandemic has taught me I need something after rugby, and to have that drive will make me a better parent. I can now be in the moment a lot more and enjoy this time to focus.”

Whilst Bibby’s professional rugby career could come to a close at the end of the summer, the Olympics are only the start for another player who hopes to be competing in Tokyo.

Women’s bronze medallist, Holly Aitchison says she is excited for the tournament and is prepared for anything that comes her way.

Holly Aitchison in action for England (credit: England Rugby)

She said: “Everything that has been going on in the world has taught me to have a back-up plan, and then another, and then a worst-case scenario. I would be happy, elated, excited, and ultimately honoured if I was selected for the games that will reunite the world again.”

“I’m not getting ahead of myself, at the moment I am just focused on doing what it takes to make the team, but these are the things that you dream of when you are little.”

 

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The 23-year-old is confident about Britain’s chances in this summer’s competition and delighted that the ‘family’ they have built has not been torn apart.

“As England we were the top ranked team in 2019 so why shouldn’t we shoot for gold. I know it sounds cliched, but if you don’t aim for something, how can you hope to achieve it?”

Whilst England have been successful on the world stage, coming together as a British squad will provide a new challenge.

“One strength is, no one has ever seen this group play before, so won’t know what to expect. We have grown to be sisters, who were torn apart, but are now reunited. The Olympics will be the icing on the cake after a difficult but rewarding year.”

 

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Aitchison has also set her sights on 15s rugby and competing at the Women’s Rugby Union World Cup, after a partial switch to union through her move to Saracens last year.

“It’d be the pinnacle of any athletes career to go to an Olympics and a World Cup in the space of a year. Saracens have been really accommodating, and amazing when I need to go to training camps. It is the best move I could’ve made, I love it.”

Rugby Sevens still remains part of her long-term plans, with the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth games also round the corner.

“To be at a home games would be amazing. Whilst I’d be excited to go to a World Cup, there are other focusses on the horizon.”

Aitchison believes it is “massively important” that women’s rugby sevens has been given this lifeline, due to the positive impact it can have on young girls and society as a whole.

“It can highlight what future generations can do in rugby, because when I was 14 or 15 my teacher laughed at me for wanting to be a professional player.”

“One of my teammates says, ‘if you can’t see something then you can’t be it,’ so if rugby can echo what women’s sport is achieving in football, then it would have a massive effect.”

Written by Amos Wynn

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