Speed thrills: The fastest players at this year’s Hong Kong Sevens

Why nothing lifts the crowd at Hong Kong Stadium more than the game’s pace merchants

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 1:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 1:04pm

The mantra is that no one player is above the team, but it’s the individual flashes of sheer genius that the crowds take home with them and remember forever.

Think Serevi. Lomu. And, ok, even Campese, too.

What strikes us now, looking back at the tapes, is the speed these stars all possessed – of movement and of thought – and how, in an instant, they could put it to use, and leave befuddled opponents trailing in their wake.

Dan Norton has over the years joined these human highlight reels at the very top of the game with his exploits for England and history is there for the making for the winger at the 2017 edition of the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.

The 29-year-old comes to town having scored his 244th try at the Vancouver Sevens, putting him level on the all-time list with Kenya’s Collins Injera, and with the smart money suggesting Norton will grab the record all for himself – for a while at least – on Friday night when the English face South Korea (at 6.22pm).

Norton reached the mark in a way befitting his stature in the game, as his poise and pace left South African opponents flapping at air; his try sealed the Vancouver tournament for England (19-7) and put them well and truly back in the race for this year’s HSBC Sevens World Series.

“It’s been a surreal two days,” was Norton’s reaction to the try, and the win. “[The record] is something I never felt I’d be in a position to do but I owe it to the team-mates who helped me get into try-scoring positions over the years.”

That helps, of course, but Norton still has to find a way over the line. And that’s where his pace comes into the equation.

Back in 2013, during sprint trials with the England team, Norton ran 4.62 seconds over 40 metres. Incredibly, that was two hundredths of a second faster than Usain Bolt’s 40m split at the start of his world record 9.58 seconds over 100 metres in 2009.

England coach Simor Amor plays strictly by the book when it comes to praising players, with the onus always on “team” but we managed to get the man to open up – a little – before heading to Hong Kong.

“Dan Norton is level at the top of the tree now and he’s a real threat with the ball in hand,” says Amor. “I think he’ll be the first one to say that a lot of the people inside him do a lot of the work in creating a lot of space for him and he spots it down. It’s a good team effort at the moment.

“We’ve got a lot of experienced players that are great leaders as well, like Dan. That really helps in terms of the team being successful and also in terms of developing the young guys.

“They’re the best people to learn from. So yeah, we’re blessed with that and we’re blessed with a number of guys like Dan in our squad. They’re great role models for their country and for those young guys.”

Other flying machines to have lit up the game in recent years include South African flyer Seabelo Senatla – now plying his trade for the Stormers in Super Rugby, as he eyes the Springboks – and the injured American Carlin Isles, who has clocked 10.13 seconds in the 100-metre dash and an incredible 4.22 seconds over 40 yards.

Asked once who he thought was the fastest man playing the game, Senatla pointed to what he called “natural” runners – such as USA’s Isles and his teammate Perry Baker.

“They are quite phenomenal. They are very fast,” said Senatla. “Those types of players, if you let them take the outside gap they are going to punish you … they were athletes before. I don’t argue with that … they are quicker than me.”

Baker will be tearing up the Hong Kong Stadium turf this weekend and the man’s game continues to grow, the one-time American footballer only turning to rugby full-time three years ago.

He came to sevens with a best time over 40 yards of 4.32 seconds – so the American camp knew what they were in for. And Perry has duly delivered.

The 30-year-old Baker has 24 tries for the Eagles so far this world series – second only to Norton (34) and the departed Senatla (32) – and the only regret Team USA coach Mike Friday has is that Perry didn’t fall for sevens while still a kid.

“Everyone knows him as a speedster and we all talk about his attacking finishing with ball in hand but he has an unbelievable aerial game and a defence that he works so hard at and enjoys the confrontational side of the game,” said Friday.

“He has come so far from his first tournament two-and-a-half years ago but people don’t realise how hard he worked the five years before as he switched from [American] football to rugby and the hard yards he did when no one was watching.

“I only wish he’d had been lucky enough to have played rugby in his high school years as we probably would have seen this version of Perry Baker even sooner.”