Rugby sevens used to be an occasional, fun distraction from the traditional 15s game but now sevens has evolved into a huge opportunity for small countries like the Cayman Islands to progress rapidly and over-achieve.
That’s why the Cayman Islands national sevens team began preparations in earnest last week at the South Sound Ground for the North American and Caribbean Rugby Championships, which will be at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex from 9-10 November.
The games will offer a qualification process for the Commonwealth Games and World Sevens Series tournaments in 2014 and become a top priority for director of rugby, Richard “Grizz” Adams.
Morgan Williams, a former professional player, national sevens coach and captain of the Canada team, is working with the Cayman team for a few weeks before returning home.
Williams is working with Dan Baugh and the Cayman Rugby Football Union’s new strength and conditioning coach, David Clancy, who hails from Ireland and has extensive knowledge of sevens in Samoa and the 15s game in Ireland.
Williams played for teams as big as Saracens in England and Stade Francais in France as a scrum half.
“Our main objective is the November games,” Williams said who is here for the third consecutive summer from his base in Victoria. “I’ll be brutally honest, the first time I was a bit shocked because it was just a little bit different from the environment that I come from in Canada.
“We didn’t really have a selection process here because there were only 12 players to choose from. Now a couple of years later, the programme they’ve been putting in place, bringing guys like Danny and Dave, is really making the atmosphere professional.
“Now you can see we’ve got 25 guys here (plus the same number overseas) so we’ve got selection options for a squad of 15 and a team of 12.
“We have choices now which we didn’t have in the past, which goes to show that the changes Grizz has implemented is working and getting better and stronger.”
Williams hopes Cayman can over-achieve and qualify for the Commonwealth Games and Hong Kong Sevens.
“I don’t think I would be here nor the other guys if we didn’t think we could get these guys to those goals that we’re setting,” Williams said.
“If they can achieve that it will be a great benefit to rugby in the Cayman Islands and financially they will benefit because the International Olympic Council will come in and give more money and boost the infrastructure.”
Baugh is a strength and conditioning coach with the Welsh national team in Cardiff.
A former Canadian international on the back row, he played for the Cardiff Blues from 1997-2005, retired through injury and started coaching that before moving into conditioning.
Baugh admits that his thoughts on how Cayman’s sevens programme has quickly risen mirrors that of Williams.
“I love to come over here to help these guys,” Baugh said. “I had a lot of fun with them last year but it’s a lot more fun this time because there is a real feeling that everyone wants to improve and do something special.
“We’re both very excited to be here, it’s a lot of fun. The ambitions of qualifying for the Commonwealth Games and Hong Kong Sevens are very realistic.
“We’ve only been here a few days and the improvement is amazing. So if we can identify a group of players here to move forward with and leave some things here for them to work with, I think we’re in a good place.”
Adams said bringing the coaches is money well spent “because they are experts in what they do after playing in the World Sevens series and that circuit”.
“If you want to compete with the best, you need to be coached by the best,” he said. “I’m a 15s coach, not a sevens one. If you want it done properly, these are the guys to do it.” He added that the local coaches, as well as the players, were learning and that aiming for the Commonwealth Games and Hong Kong Sevens is very realistic.
“We’ve spent a lot of time putting this programme together for the last seven years and it’s time it took off,” said Adams. ““We’ve now got the management team in place, players, medical team and coaches. Everything’s there to work, it’s time to stop making excuses and just go out and do it.”
Through sponsorship from Maples, Queensgate Bank and Trust, the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Cayman Islands Olympic Committee, Adams is thankful for their support.
“We need a lot more money to get the programme where it’s got to go. It’s expensive because there’s a lot of travel involved. We’re always looking for more sponsorship and those we have are fantastic.”
Two Caymanian hopefuls benefiting from all this expertise are Alex Harvey and Garrett Connolly. Other Caymanians anxious to make the team include Michael Wilson, Westin brothers Paul and Edwin, Mark Soto, Justin Wight, Robbie Cribb, Keswick Wright and the Clark brothers Joel and Josh.
Fly half Connolly, 22, has been in the rugby programme for six years. He prefers the fast, fluid pace of the sevens format, although it is far more tiring.
“It’s an honour to play for your country and we’re very committed,” Connolly said. Although an immensely physical sport, one of the perks of getting bashed about for him is the extensive travel.
He has already played in Kenya, Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Barbados, England and the US.
Connolly would not mind going pro and feels many Cayman youngsters have the talent and dedication to do so “but it’s whoever can endure the pain the longest”.
Apart from a busted up shoulder, he feels he has been pretty lucky with injuries so far.
Harvey, 20, is the son of marine biologist, artist and businessman Guy. Alex plays at centre for the Cardiff Medics in Wales where he is studying for a degree in business.
This is Harvey’s first year in sevens and he is finding the faster game physically demanding. “It’s a good game to play and a lot of fun, especially with this great group of guys.” Harvey has had a few fractured fingers and occasional knocks but still feels the pain is worth it. “It’s part of the fun of the game,” he said.
He appreciates the input from the new coaches. “Morgan and Dan are world class. They show you the little things you don’t really think about and have really opened up to me the sevens game. It’s phenomenal.”