I’m standing on a pitch facing rugby sevens’ all-time highest point scorer. Ben Gollings, a former England sevens captain who racked up 2,652 points in 70 tournaments, is about to show me some of the nuances of the quick-fire short version of rugby. I’m already worried: I will, he says, need “electric acceleration”.
Seven-a-side rugby is regarded as key to developing international-standard talent in the 15-man game. But this game of seven-minute halves and three-man scrums has a global following in its own right: the HSBC Sevens World Series in May was watched in 400 million homes, according to the International Rugby Board. And on July 26 the England sevens team opens its Commonwealth Games campaign at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, when they play Sri Lanka.
“Sevens is a cauldron,” says 34-year-old Gollings, who skippered his country at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. “It highlights your skill ability but one mistake can mean the opposition scoring points very quickly. You need flair and pace” – that “electric acceleration” he is asking me to muster – “but you have to be comfortable in that environment, especially in defence”.
Gollings invites me to tackle him but easily evades me in a blur of quick steps that leaves me groping at air. Having reset, he runs at me once more and – just as we’re approaching touching distance – he neatly clips the ball overhead with his right boot, rounds me, catches it and smiles at my bewilderment. “You may make a number of tackles during a game but it’ll be the ones you miss that people will remember,” he says. Gollings then flings me the ball, points out an imaginary try-line, 5m behind him, and tells me to “back myself” to breach his defence.
I played rugby at university but now possess the turning circle of a North Sea ferry. After some time plotting my move, I head towards Gollings, aware that my acceleration is less than electric. A jerky-rather-than-jinky double sidestep fails to shake him off and, in the absence of speed to go past and score, I’m gathered in a smiling Gollings’ arms, to symbolise a tackle.
As we walk across the AstroTurf of Blackheath RFC’s pitch, Gollings, scorer of 220 tries in international sevens, talks me through his most skilful five-pointer. It came in a tournament in Singapore against New Zealand, who go into the Commonwealth Games as favourites, having won all four finals since 1998. “I broke the line by chipping and chasing someone,” he says, “then regathered, chipped and chased the sweeper, and then picked it up and scored.”
I ask him to show me his handling skills so we run towards the photographer’s tripod, pretending it is the line of defence. We then perform some “scissors” moves, where I run from wide right to come left, behind him, and, without even looking, he pops the ball up, sending me cluelessly away into the space beyond. “Sevens allows players to express themselves freely and naturally, and those who really stand out have plenty of inventive flair,” he says, as I celebrate a make-believe try against New Zealand, having been put away by Gollings, past the tripod.
Gollings, who grew up in Cornwall, now lives in Seattle, where he coaches the sport alongside the Fijian sevens legend Waisale Serevi. He played for England’s sevens team for 11 years and took part in three Commonwealth Games, winning silver at the 2006 Melbourne Games. In that tournament Gollings scored a last-minute converted try against Serevi’s Fiji to advance to the final, losing narrowly to New Zealand.
“The Commonwealth Games was always the Olympics for sevens,” says Gollings. “It has a different feel from anything in the sport, because you’re inside an athletes’ village, seeing how other people prepare for their sports. It’s fascinating.”
But Gollings will be watching the Glasgow games with a degree of sadness: at the end of the 2011 season the then captain was dropped from the squad. “It came as a great shock,” he says. “Going from skipper, and a player who has played nearly every minute of every game in the last decade, to not even a bench or support role … it was a big high to a massive low. It’s something I still find hard.”
That abrupt severing of his international career also extinguished his dream of playing in the Olympics. In 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, sevens will make its debut, and Gollings finds the prospect of watching from the sidelines – as a coach, in all probability – tough to bear. “Sevens will explode at the Olympics,” he says ruefully.
Gollings is now a coach for Serevi Rugby, the Seattle-based company owned by the 46-year-old Fijian. He is also an ambassador for HSBC’s Rugby Festivals. “The key to teaching sevens is to try not to get too bogged down with the understanding of the game of rugby per se,” says Gollings, as he drops the ball on to his right foot and chips it into his hands. “You need to use a rugby ball to show people how much fun it can be. I like to set up games where you run around with the ball in your hands, chasing one another, learning what the essence of rugby is about but in a less complex way.
“It’s one of the best places to start all the decision-making processes we go through with the ball in our hand, or being a defender, trying to manipulate people, trying to find space.” And, as if to emphasise the point, Gollings clips the ball over my head and collects once more, rounding me with a grin.
More sprints and scissors training for me.
The Commonwealth Games run from July 23 to August 3; details at glasgow2014.com
Photographs: Fred MacGregor