You spent your teenage years studying at Canford School. Did you play numerous sports, or was rugby always the priority? When was the stage you released rugby was a possible career opportunity?
When I was at school, I played every sport I could. I was a sport nut. This included hockey, rugby, tennis, cricket, athletics, squash, golf and 5-a-side indoor football. I was very fortunate that Canford provided these sports to participate in. Up until the age of 16, I was completely sport focused, the major one missing being football, but it was at this age that I focused more on rugby. That year I trailed for England hockey and played England rugby. I played in the Rosslyn Park Sevens, which was the first time Canford had entered, and we came away victors. It was here that I was spotted by scouts looking for players in the premiership and rugby took off. I became a semi-professional with Gloucester in my last year at school and moved to London to play for Harlequins as soon as I finished school.
You played for several top end Premiership sides while you were younger. How and why did you make the switch to 7’s? Has it always been a passion of yours?
Throughout my whole professional career I played both XV’s and 7’s. I played week in week out in the Premiership and then would go away with the 7’s. I enjoyed the difference 7’s gave as I felt freer in the game to run more and utilise all my skills. However, I would come back from a 7’s tour feeling energised and ready to play XV’s again.
After leaving the UK to try rugby in the Southern Hemisphere on a global stage, I became recognised for 7’s. However, I just missed out playing XV’s for Queensland Reds and Canterbury Crusaders as I was not eligible to play for them as I had played for England. I kept playing XV’s throughout and enjoyed playing in Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Overall I viewed 7’s and XV’s equally and enjoyed what they both provided, however with 7’s I really enjoyed the physical element it provided and the tactical and skill elements. It also provided an amazing opportunity to travel and represent England and play in some incredible atmospheres and events.
That is why towards the end of my career I took the opportunity to focus on 7s and be a part of the development of the game which was ultimately building towards the Olympics.
You have surpassed numerous records while representing England on the Sevens circuit. Not only have you won several IRB Sevens Series Titles, but you also are the leading top points scorer in 7’s history, with a total of 2,652 points. Looking back on your career what have been the highlights?
Looking back, I was very honoured to play with and against some incredible players and teams during my time with England. I was also able to hit some personal milestones which can be seen in the World Record. Outside of this achievement, other standout moments where winning in Hong Kong, especially the victory in 2006. Winning in Wellington and beating New Zealand was special as it doesn’t happen often and then playing in three Commonwealth Games winning a silver medal. I think captaining your country sits up there as it’s a great honour and lastly it was running out at Twickenham with my two sons to play South Africa, which is not an everyday experience.
On the 21st June 2011, it was announced that your contract with the RFU would not be renewed. After 70 tournaments representing England, did this come as a surprise? Or was this decision through injuries or other factors?
This was a huge surprise. I went from having a very good season when I was both the captain and the highest points scorer to suddenly not having my contract renewed! I was still one of the fittest in the team and didn’t really see anyone coming through that was threatening my position. I did not see it coming and never knew it was the last time I would represent England. It is a decision I have gone over and over and to this day cannot understand it. It rocked my world and it took me a long time to recover from it.
In 2012, you took up a coaching role in Sri Lanka, and have been involved within coaching ever since. Has this always been a passion of yours? It must be enjoyable seeing young players develop.
I always knew that after playing I would take up coaching. I had been coaching and mentoring players for a long time while playing. The opportunity to coach Sri Lanka was amazing and so rewarding. It provided a great test as it was a different culture and language. They were incredibly welcoming and hungry to learn, and it was a joy to see them grow as a team and realise their potential and it is something that I enjoy about coaching.
Developing teams and individuals is a fantastic position to be in and I have had the opportunity to do this all around the world. I enjoy all the different tests coaching throws at you and working out how to solve those and maximise the individual and the team. I had a saying as a player of “always thinking”, and I think it is even more true for a coach and is a challenge I accept and thrive on.
To play 7’s at the top level for 11 years must have been mentally and physically draining at times. If you could give any advice to aspiring athletes what would it be. What was your drive?
Ultimately my internal drive was to be the best I could be, then add this to the team and be a part of a winning team. This made me very competitive and I wanted to win every race and test and game.
Advice I would give is put in the work and listen and learn as you do get rewarded for this and it pays off. Also create balance and have different focuses that keep you fresh for your rugby.
In sevens, but this applies to all sports, know how to look after yourself and your body so you are able to get the most out of it. Lastly make it fun and enjoy every day you are playing because it doesn’t last forever.
This interview was conducted by Tom Pittman, Athlete Manager at The S Word.