For fans of the HSBC Sevens World Series, some of the squads for the IRB Junior World Championship 2012 in South Africa will have a familiar look to them with players having made a swift switch from the shortened game to their national Under 20 sides.
Australia, in particular, have a familiar look to them with six members of their squad having played on the Series in 2011/12, including Matt Lucas who held his nerve to kick the winning conversion and snatch a 28-26 win over Samoa in the Tokyo Sevens final on 1 April.
Lucas, who is back for a second shot at the Junior World Championship after helping Australia finish third in Italy last year, had only made his Sevens World Series debut for a youthful Australian out a week earlier in Hong Kong.
Playmaker Allan Faalavaau and Sean McMahon – the youngest member of the Sevens team at just 17 – were both involved in that Tokyo final, while Con Foley was in the 12-man squad for the Series’ return to the Japanese capital after an 11-year absence.
Lewis Holland and Lindsay Crook have also worn the distinctive Australian Sevens jersey in the last few months, while Australia Under 20s captain Liam Gill made his debut in Las Vegas in 2010, a few months before becoming the youngest to ever play on the JWC stage in Argentina.
Gill, a Commonwealth Games silver medallist in 2010, insists that the experience of playing on the Sevens World Series is “invaluable” to a young Australian team hoping to win a first JWC title.
Sevens helps a great deal
“Even though Sevens is another brand of game and another style it gives you that exposure to the international stage. Playing in front of big crowds definitely trains the nerves and hopefully it will give them the confidence to make the team and to give us good performances on the field.”
A sentiment echoed by Australia Sevens captain Ed Jenkins: “I think it is enormous for them, to play in the front of the crowds that we get fortunate enough to play under. It is a huge boost being in the professional environment that Sevens is creating at the moment, that is going to be a huge boost for them when they play for the 20s side.”
Australia’s squad is the youngest of the 12 participating teams at JWC 2012 and half of the players will be eligible to play in next year’s tournament in France, something that coach David Nucifora admits has been a conscious policy of the Australian Rugby Union.
“The Sevens helps them a great deal, they were babies on the Sevens circuit and they grew as the year went on. They had that great win in Tokyo and it gives them a lot of confidence coming back into age grade and Fifteens rugby.
“It is (a conscious development decision), we don’t mind throwing them out there and just letting them have a go. It has worked for us in the past, if they’re good enough they’re old enough basically. We just back them and they have got a lot of confidence these young blokes. It’s good experience and they just grow quickly.”
“It’s really important (the players see the pathway from U20s to the Wallabies). It’s a very conscious decision we make to select these guys young.
“In Australian rugby we have a challenge of creating depth. We have had to create depth quickly over the last three or four years and it has been a very conscious effort of ours to push guys into Sevens, bring guys through this 20s programme and expose them where possible to Super Rugby and create people challenging for positions at the highest level.
“They have been able to do that, there have been a lot of boys that have come out of this programme the last three or four years have moved on to play Test football and I hope there’ll be another good batch amongst these players.”
Nucifora admits that it can be a bit of a challenge for the players to make the switch from Sevens to Fifteens, less than three weeks having elapsed since they were playing at the Marriott London Sevens, the climax of the HSBC Sevens World Series.
“There is a bit of a challenge for them. We had a game last Friday (they beat Samoa 57-12) and for some of them that was their first game of Fifteens for a long time and they felt a bit claustrophobic out on the field, there were too many people out there. It will take them a few runs to hit their Fifteens straps I think.”
Australia are not alone, though, in fielding players with England, Fiji, France, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa and Wales all having one or more players with Sevens World Series experience in their 28-man squad for JWC 2012.
Samoa have Robert Lilomaiava, a Cup winner in Las Vegas back in February, in their squad and the centre will be hoping to have the same impact on the IRB Junior World Championship as he did in last year’s Junior World Rugby Trophy, when he scored nine tries to ensure an immediate return to the elite tournament.
Lilomaiava made his Sevens World Series debut in the opening event of the 2011/12 season on Australia’s Gold Coast, alongside second row Talaga Alofipo who was also part of the JWRT 2011 winning side in Russia.
Learning fast on Sevens Series
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne also made his Scotland Sevens debut on the Gold Coast and the Scottish Under 20 side also has two players – Jamie Farndale and Will Bordill – who played for their country in last year’s Youth Commonwealth Games.
Wales have had Tom Habberfield and Tom Prydie, who already has four Test caps to his name from 2010, in their Sevens team this season, while Matthew Morgan played in Las Vegas in 2011.
Harry Robinson would have been another with a Sevens connection, but he was this week withdrawn from the Wales Under 20 squad to join the senior team on their tour of Australia. He marked his Test debut with a try against the Barbarians on Saturday.
England wing Charlie Walker won the Under 20 Six Nations title and immediately jetted off to play in the Hong Kong Sevens, while Semi Keli was playing for Fiji on the Series as far back as the 2010 London Sevens.
Flanker Jonathan Laugel made his debut in the Wellington Sevens back in February, while Jean Charles Fidende and Yohann Artru have also played Sevens for France in the last couple of years.
JWC 2012 hosts South Africa also have three Sevens players in their Under 20 squad with Paul Jordaan, Tshotsho Mbovane and William Small-Smith having played for the Blitzbokke in the last two seasons.
“Sevens is a fast sport, it's a one shot stage, everything happens quickly and you learn that every tackle, every pass, every ball you hold could be the deciding one,” said Small-Smith. “This is what I want to bring on the field and give the most in every single moment.”