Dan Norton says GB Sevens players will self-fund Olympic dream in wake of cuts
Last Updated: 03/09/20 3:40pm
Sevens legend Dan Norton speaks exclusively to Sky Sports about the worrying state of Sevens post-Covid, its risk of extinction in the UK, signing for London Irish and maintaining dreams of an Olympic medal...
When the end came it was swift and severe.
Last month, less than a year out from the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics - Dan Norton's Sevens contract came to a sudden and premature end.
The entire England Sevens programme was wound up, torn down, and thrown on the Covid scrap heap. High performance Olympic athletes, men and women, were forced to find alternative employment less than a year out from the biggest event in the sport.
In a sporting landscape ravaged by the pandemic - with projected losses to the RFU of over £100m - it is Sevens that has taken the biggest hit.
Norton describes it as his "lowest point in rugby," and emphasises that if the correct decisions aren't made - and fast - then it will not just be the players but the sport itself that disappears.
"Sevens is a hard one to get right: you're getting 16 men's and 12 women's teams from all over the world flying into the one place," he told Sky Sports.
"My fear is that if it's not done - and done well - Sevens could slide back into an amateur sport or even fall completely by the wayside."
That sentiment from one of Sevens' biggest global stars it is a stark warning to the powers that be. All, however, might not be lost. Norton, 32, tells us how he and his fellow players are now taking matters into their own hands, to ensure they can bring a competitive 'Team GB' to the Olympics next year.
With an expected Series restart at the Hong Kong Sevens in April, and no funding from the RFU forthcoming, the players realise their chance of competing for a medal in Tokyo has now become a case of Sevens DIY.
More used to sprint tests and ice baths, necessity is turning the England Sevens players into business people. Several large companies, well-versed in sponsoring rugby, have already shown interest in supporting this emerging Sevens start-up.
"The goal is still to play in the Olympics. If there's no money from the RFU we're going to do our best to try and create that opportunity for ourselves and our programme," Norton says.
"That's something we're looking into as a player group with our networks, and seeing what we can do from a commercial point of view… seeing how far we can go with it…how far we can run…
"There are amazing companies and businesses in the UK, and Sevens is exciting.
"Sevens is also one of the biggest growth sports for women. It's about creating something that's enticing - an investment opportunity for all."
Although the majority of the players are still reeling from the loss of their Sevens careers, a few of the men's players have had success finding work since: young outside-back Will Muir has joined Premiership side Bath; Charlton Kerr is at London Irish; Ben Harris hooked up with Saracens.
One of the more senior players, England vice captain Phil Burgess, has taken a slightly different direction - he is now Head of Rugby at Cranleigh School.
Norton, the highest Sevens try-scorer of all time, is also one of the lucky few - he has recently signed a short-term contract with London Irish, resurrecting a fifteen-a-side career which first began twelve years ago.
He made his Exiles debut on Monday, coming off the bench against Saracens. In a week when England fifteen-a-side head coach Eddie Jones described Sevens players as "freaks" - Norton believes there's no reason why short-form 'specialists' can't flourish in the longer game.
"Sevens has really exposed me to being in that top high-level elite, to playing in front of big crowds playing high octane rugby in pressured environments - that has given me the skill set to be here.
"I'm able to marry up what I learnt 10 years ago [in 15s], see what's relevant still, and align it with what I've learnt in Sevens over the past decade. Sevens isn't just a specialist sport."
Norton will enjoy his time at London Irish - but he fully and passionately intends to turn his attention back to Sevens. The goal is crystal clear.
"To give ourselves a shot at a medal next year - we've been grafting for the last however long to get here. It's been taken away from us - but now we've got an opportunity to create something pretty special."
He might have to spend some time in the boardroom as well as on the training field, but, for Dan Norton, the dream is still very much alive. All power to him.