Contracts 'a deal breaker for on-field success'
England's change in philosophy - of contracting players for sevens - has been partly responsible for their poor run at the Hong Kong Sevens in recent years, says former coach Mike Friday.
Friday, who was behind England's imperious reign from 2002-06, believes the present structure stymies growth and fails to attract up-and-coming talent, leading to a knock-on effect on England, who have failed to bloom under the tutelage of Friday's successor, Ben Ryan.
'When we won four in a row [2005 was a World Cup year, won by Fiji], the sevens squad was a player pathway and a lot of young guys went on to play for England,' Friday said. 'Now there are full-time professional sevens players and they have built a sevens-specific programme, but this rules out up-and-coming Premiership players.'
Friday, who will coach the Samurai International at the GFI HKFC Tens on March 21-22, pointed out that while England and South Africa (who have never won in Hong Kong) had adopted the contracted professional route, other sides like New Zealand and Wales still believed in the pathway route, and this approach seemed to be the best.
'I was always a believer in the pathway. I believe sevens is just like 15s, just with fewer people on the pitch. You still have one-on-one situations and you just try to beat your man. People talked about our success in the Sevens World Series and in Hong Kong, but more important for me was how many of our players went on to play for England in 15s,' Friday, 39, said.
'This was the philosophy I shared with the clubs, about a winning development, but not winning at the expense of development.
'However, the sevens game has changed and so has the influence of the stakeholders. It's now a black-and-white contract route. It's not great if you are always referring to the contract. I always believe the contract should be the last point of reference, not the first.'
But there are advantages of the contracted system, particularly that players are more available to the coach, something which Friday had to fight for as clubs had first call.
'One of the biggest issues was getting access to the players, whereas now the coach has access to the players from Monday to Wednesday. Anyway, I went one way and Ben [Ryan] went the other way. But it would be wrong to say one way is better than the other.'
A former England sevens scrumhalf, Friday captained the side at the 2001 World Cup Sevens in Argentina. He was assistant coach to Joe Lydon for England's hat-trick of Hong Kong Sevens victories from 2002-04 before taking over the reins in 2005.
His first year in Hong Kong as head coach ended in anguish when England lost in sudden death extra-time to Fiji in the semi-finals of the 2005 World Cup Sevens but he returned the following year to engineer England's fourth straight win at the Hong Kong Sevens.
Since then there has been a drought under Ryan.
Friday believed the changes in the game, from pace to power, had also played a role in this lack of success. 'It has evolved into more of a power game. When I was coaching, it was more about speed, but now a lot of teams are more confrontational,' Friday said. 'There are fewer fast people, like when we had [Tom] Varndell and South Africa had [Fabian] Juries and so on. There is also more offloading and less structure than when we were winning [in Hong Kong].'
But Friday still believes in England, and thinks Isoa Damudamu, a big forward who has now been switched to centre, holds the key to a fifth Cup title in Hong Kong this month. 'England still probably have the fastest squad in the series, but now they have got a player like Damudamu, a big man who can run straight lines and this has helped make them more consistent,' said Friday, who will share the coaching duties for Samurai at the Tens with former All Black Blair Larsen.
'I came back to Hong Kong [for the Sevens] in 2007 as a fan. I really didn't know what I had been missing out on. It was always nice being able to relax on the Sunday night after the Hong Kong Sevens, but it was another thing to be partying and catching up with people for the whole week leading up to it and seeing the energy in the city It was really eye-opening.
'The support for England was second to none. When the players warmed up and trotted along the South Stand, you could see their body language just propped up. The national anthem was sung just as loud as at Twickenham, even in a stadium half the size. It was just inspiring. We thrived on that and we felt accountable, and it helped.
'It has been five years since I was in the stands, so I'm looking forward to coming back to watch the Sevens, as well as coach Samurai in the Tens.'