Olympians speak of Tokyo highs and what’s to come
If sport has been suspended in time in recent memory, then international rugby sevens has experienced interruption on a scale that forced its temporary cessation throughout 2020 and much of the current year.
The HSBC World Sevens Series, the circuit on which the abbreviated game’s very best players operate, came to a halt after the Vancouver leg of the 2019/20 season, Scotland having finished 9th in Canada by virtue of three excellent wins over Argentina, Kenya and then France on day two.
There was of course little chance of that momentum being carried into the rest of the year on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the next opportunity for these players to display their wares came in January 2021, when Team GB named their initial squad for the delayed Tokyo Olympics.
Four Scots were named in Tony Roques’ final selection, with Alec Coombes, Max McFarland, Ross McCann and Robbie Fergusson earning the chance, after great patience, to represent their country on one of the world’s biggest stages.
Team GB missed out on a medal in Japan, coming fourth after a narrow bronze medal match defeat to Argentina – but the experience will live forever in the players’ memories, from the moment of selection to taking to the pitch itself.
Robbie Fergusson explained the early stages of the process: “It felt a little bit like The Apprentice –you got called in for a one-to-one, from which you had to leave immediately. I think I was second person in and it was fairly short and sweet – I honestly didn’t have words when they told me I was selected. They said to go away and relax, not speak to anyone, it was surreal. I then sat in a car for six hours coming up the road and mull it all over, before being able to tell my family. For me to tell them was really nice but it was hard to not mention!”
Ross McCann added: “I can’t even remember the walk to the car after being told I was in! I sat in the car, head in hands, a few tears going, then rang my Mum and she started crying in the middle of the David Lloyd gym she was in! She rang me back ten minutes later when she’d processed it herself – it was an incredible moment and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it.”
One of the great facets of Olympic life is the ability to rub shoulders with fellow athletes from across the spectrum of sport and although Tokyo was somewhat curtailed by coronavirus restrictions, some fascinating moments were still had, as Ross explained: “It was slightly different because of Covid so you couldn’t socialise like you normally would, but I had Andy Murray sitting on the table behind me and it was a real ‘(whispers) that’s Andy Murray!’ moment, and Tommy Fleetwood was chatting away, he was absolutely buzzing to meet the sevens players. You had NBA stars walking around next to you – it was crazy, next level stuff!
Robbie added: “We went to a Team GB holding camp in the first week so meeting some of the characters in our team and hearing their stories, and it was nice to feel part of one team with all the other Team GB athletes. You do get a bit starstruck and the bit that got me was the food hall, where all nationalities shared space. You’re sitting having food next to people you’ve watched on tv for years.”
Back to the business of competing for Team GB, the players were relieved at the opportunity to showcase their talents after what was a near-16-month hiatus, as Ross said: “It felt a bit like normality for us, travelling as you do on the sevens circuit in humid conditions. It made you appreciate it after what’s happened with Covid and was definitely something to savour. Having the best players from three nations, you learn so much from these environments. You don’t know the players who are now your teammates and you see how much talent there is across the three nations.”
Robbie reckons that the whole Olympic nature, whereby players from different countries come together under one umbrella, is akin to a similar rugby tour that happened in 2021: “The only thing you can compare it to is the Lions, where you get players from countries coming together to form a team and sharing ideas. It’s interesting to hear how Wales and England do things and even looking at Ross; the player he was and the player he is now after the Olympics – it’s like two different animals altogether.
“So hopefully when Scotland 7s comes back players can take these experiences and put that into a Scotland 7s group and push forward.”
"Hopefully one day I’ll be part of a final with Flower of Scotland being used as an anthem – that would be nice.” Robbie Fergusson
As part of the agreement for the calendar year, Team GB also competed in the HSBC World Sevens Series legs in Vancouver and Edmonton in September, where Scotland’s four Olympians were joined by Paddy Kelly and Jamie Farndale to up the Scottish contingent to six.
They medalled in both events, earning a bronze and then silver as Team GB finished the mini-series in second place behind champions South Africa. Such success, allied to some Olympic dreams being realised, made for a memorable end to a frantic few months: “It’s something I’ve battled along on the circuit for years and to make my first semi-final and bronze on Vancouver, then follow it up with a final and silver in Edmonton was unbelievable,” said Robbie.
“We know the competition wasn’t maybe the same as it normally is but you can only beat the teams in front of you; the squad came together four days before we went to Vancouver so it shows where we’re. I don’t know what’s to come but hopefully one day I’ll be part of a final with Flower of Scotland being used as an anthem – that would be nice.”
Scotland 7s will reconvene at the end of 2021 to compete on next year’s circuit under the auspices of head coach Ciaran Beattie and with both a Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and World Cup in South Africa on the horizon, a taste of success amongst the world’s best is something that could cap an incredible 12 months for some of these players.