With the 7s introduction to the 2016 Olympics it has grabbed a greater profile. This has led to speculation from various rugby pundits about which players from the 15s world might cross over for the opportunity to win a gold medal. I have heard comments from several 7s experts questioning what these pundits know. So I reached out to Willie Los’e to learn more about 7s and get an educated opinion if there 15s players might be able to transfer across.
For those of you that don’t know him, Willie was capped 3 times for Tonga at the 1995 Rugby World Cup after having played provincial rugby in New Zealand. After that he moved to Japan where he spent 7 years playing for Yamaha in the professional league there. He’s now a broadcaster for Sky TV in New Zealand and a commentator on the World Rugby Sevens tour. I was extremely happy when he agreed to give me an interview and totally nervous on the phone.
We started out by talking about the general differences for the 15s and 7s games. Willie pointed out that they are totally different games. In 7s the import thing is having a big engine with a good aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Then from a skills point of view the ability to pass both ways, but also short and long passes. As 7s is on the same pitch as 15s but with so few players the distances between players can be much greater. Then there is the ever present strength and speed, including speed of thought as quick decision making is often the difference between winning and losing a game.
I then asked him about the formation, in 15s this is fairly uniform although we are seeing more double lines in attack. 7s does have some variety in that some teams especially England and sometimes Fiji will push up all their 7 players in defence. They are able to do this as they have the pace to cover back. Most teams though will have 6 up and 1 player back sweeping who is normally the half back/first receiver. This involves a drift defence with the covering player being the one that talks to coordinate the team. On attack Fiji are able to play differently, most teams will have the forwards working together. Fiji put a big man out wide on both sides, with their pace and offloading meaning that the forwards and backs can play seamlessly.
Moving on to the forward positions, I was expecting there to be differences and skills associated with the lineout and scrum but what I didn’t realise was the importance of the restart. A couple of seasons ago New Zealand were beaten 44-0 by Fiji because they couldn’t get the ball from the kickoffs. The forwards really need to be able to specialise in 3 or 4 things with the ability to claim the ball is extremely important. Teams that don’t have this have adopted a tactic of pairing up players, so one can be lifted into the air. With only 7 players on the pitch obviously there is only so much space you can cover like this.
The back roles are also specialists with the half back and first receiver being extremely important as the playmakers. This is the brain trust of the team that needs to know what the next play is going to be before they get the ball. Often you will see a player running backwards to create space as possession of the ball is all important in 7s not territory like 15s. The remaining 2 backs are your finishers such as Carlin Isles.
We had been talking from a mens point of view up until this point so I ask Willie if there was a big difference to the ladies game. The skills in the lades game has leapt forwards in the last couple of years. It’s really interesting that a lot of this has come about with the recruitment of athletes from other sports, The USA have brought people over from bobsledding, basketball and track and field. Australia have brought in swimmers and touch players and New Zealand have players from netball. They come with the conditioning and just have to add the skills on top. The passing both ways and the skills to maintain the continuity of possession are the thing that have particularly improved.
Finally we talked about some of the names that had been thrown around. Willie pointed out that some such as Messam and Barrett already had commonwealth gold medals in 7s. So the transition back shouldn’t be a problem. The other big names that had been mentioned are obviously Sonny Bill Williams and Quade Cooper. Willie feels that both those players have the skills and physical attributes to be successful at this level. Willie did caution against some of the older players transferring over though because of the pace of the game. Interestingly since we talked both Messam and Sonny Bill have been named in the New Zealand 7s squad for next season.
It was a pleasure to talk him and I got some real insights into the game that hopefully I have managed to convey here. Unfortunately I didn’t get to talk to him about when we met in HK. He brought over a side that won the HK 10s that year and I bought their signed shirt at the auction to help raise funds.