From L-R, Ben Harris, Dan Bibby, Tom Mitchell and Alex Davis are hoping to guide Britain's Rugby Sevens side to glory
Credit: Jeff Gilbert
/Jeff Gilbert Photography
Tom Mitchell received two pieces of life-altering news within a 12-hour period last August. The first was when the Rugby Football Union that informed him and his England sevens colleagues that they would be made redundant with less than a year to the rescheduled Tokyo Games.
England had qualified on behalf of Team GB, but as they do not receive UK Sport funding the players genuinely feared for their Olympic hopes without their only source of revenue.
But Mitchell’s wife Flo would deliver even bigger news that evening. “My head was spinning, I felt very low and I was very worried about the rest of the team. Then I was in the shower in the afternoon and Flo just told me she was pregnant,” he reveals to Telegraph Sport. “I didn’t know what to think at that point. It was confusing because one of the first things to hit me was ‘oh, s—t, I haven’t got a job, how am I going to feed the child?’”
As England captain Mitchell took the lead in negotiations with the RFU and potential sponsors alongside his female counterpart Abbie Brown and the now retired Rio veteran Phil Burgess. Their efforts would eventually prove successful, with the National Lottery coming to the rescue with funding in late December, but looking back Mitchell describes that period as “the void” and it is one he did not enjoy.
“The hardest thing for me was trying to do the right thing for sevens and the Olympic group of players. Having to train in my back garden or on Tooting Common was frustrating at times but that was all right. It was trying to sort the programme which was the really crap stuff,” he says. “It just seemed to wear me down and chip away at me. I felt quite defeated by a lot of it. It was also a period of learning how professional sport works and I don’t know if I like that.
“I felt there was a lot of banging my head against a brick wall at that stage and on reflection maybe it was worth it and I try and tell myself that, but I didn’t enjoy the process.”
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Oxford-educated Mitchell, who describes himself as an “over thinker”, adds: “I felt like a bit of the life was drained out of me. Bloody hell that sounds dramatic! But that is how I felt. There was nothing to give me a boost or a zest at that point. did feel quite dejected.”
He asks if special mention can be given to the role his wife played in helping him through the year. This is even more poignant given the arrival of baby son Leo when the Team GB Sevens programme was in its infancy in April.
“When Leo came along, my mind totally went off anything else. We had quite a tough first week in hospital, as Leo got quite sick. He had an infection and they didn’t know what it was. They had to do lots of tests. It was a really torrid week for Flo as she had to stay in overnight and I couldn’t because of Covid,” he recalls.
“Flo was bearing the brunt of it from day one. I did tune into one of the sevens Zoom meetings from hospital – the kind of person that I am I didn’t want to step out completely – but everyone else was telling me to not bother. I had two weeks off and then I was able to focus on the rugby again because Flo was doing such an amazing job.”
Yet having made it to Tokyo, Mitchell believes the experiences of the past year has helped forge an unbreakable bond amongst a British team that will be fighting for a medal against sides such as New Zealand and South Africa who were able to keep training and playing throughout Covid.
“The thing that brought the whole squad together was the experience of sevens being canned for a while,” says Mitchell, who will lead a squad that contains a core of eight English and four Scots. “We bonded through the shared suffering – allowed us to find a common ground and foundation for the squad was really strong. That sense of shared suffering was the starting point we leant on – it was the same for both the players and coaches.”
British and Irish Lions tradition dictates that the youngest player looks after a cuddly toy Lion. However, unlike Louis Rees-Zammit, Team GB’s youngest player 21 year-old Ben Harris has a more utilitarian task in Tokyo. “I don’t get a cuddly toy, I have to carry the biggest bag or an extra bag or I have to tie someone’s shoelaces. It is nothing fun!” chuckles Harris.
Harris refers to the England sevens programme as “the place where I grew up”, which is accurate when you consider he rejected a place to study mathematics at Exeter University in order to take up a place in the system three years ago. And his youth means that the 2020 England Sevens player of the year has only ever been involved in programmes where the men and women’s teams are aligned and work together, with the influence of his female counterparts coming through in conversation.
Dan Bibby says he has been heavily influenced by working alongside women's team his entire career
Credit: Jeff Gilbert
/Jeff Gilbert Photography
“The women have massively helped sculpt me in my early adult years by having them right next to me as I grew up. I am not sure if a lot who came through XVs where things aren’t side-by-side yet would have the same perspective,” he says.
Harris also believes he and his male counterparts learnt a lot in terms of how far ahead women’s rugby is on LGBT issues and he cites Team GB’s Meg Jones and Celia Quansah, who are a couple, as teaching him a lot in the past year.
“I look up to the women in how inclusive they are,” he says. “I really like how open they are as a group. They definitely bring something different – you only have to look at Meg Jones and Celia Quansah – I was speaking about them to my girlfriend the other day. How often do you get to run out at the Olympic Games with your partner? That is amazing.
“When I watched them do an interview on television, it was so great. I have never heard of that in a men’s team at all, it is so nice to stay open minded and to see things like that is amazing and it is one of the cool things about our sport.
“The amazing thing is that people my age see things very differently, for a long time it has not been easy for same sex couples, particularly in sport. People my age and younger are lucky enough to grow up basically seeing that and know it is okay and we are going to as we grow older keep on being more supportive and the generation after us will be even better in sport.”
Alex Davis is apologetic as he explains he hasn’t had as much time over the past few months to dedicate to his work as a volunteer for mental health text service Give Us A Shout. During the first lockdown, when the Bristolian had to give up his flat in London to move home with mother Lyndsay, he spent “a few hours each day” in text conversations with those in crisis. And perhaps it is that perspective which explains Davis’ rather Zen approach to redundancy.
“I was very disappointed about the redundancy from the RFU but I was fortunate compared to other guys in the England set up as I don’t have children and responsibilities,” he explains. “It has had its challenges but from my own perspective I have been grateful to switch off from rugby and prioritise other things.”
And you could understand why Davis is philosophical, having had to deal with a number of adversities over the past six years. In late 2015, he lost his father to cancer and then was selected as something of a bolter for the Rio Olympic squad only to dislocate his ankle while training in Brazil. There were times back then when he questioned his future in the sport and again he pondered retirement in 2019 as he had three surgeries on his left shoulder and a fourth on his abdominal wall.
“Rugby doesn’t last forever and I was already prepared for a new chapter, maybe with what happened with Covid was much more extreme but it was a nod that I needed to look ahead. I was already partly prepared for it,” he explains.
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“It was a very challenging and difficult time in 2019, for me personally it was a lot more difficult than 2020 because I felt like my body was giving up on me and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I felt quite defeated but with the Covid year everything was out of my control.”
Davis is planning to keep playing sevens until at least the end of the truncated 2021 World Series, which kicks off after the Olympics, and has ambitions to play abroad. Longer-term, though, he would like to have a career helping others, perhaps in the area of mental health, with the challenges he has faced so far preparing him for the task ahead.
“The way I think about what happened in my life is that sometimes you have to take the test before you are ready for it and it wasn’t easy at all,” he says. “I am not an expert but I feel like I am able to handle things more comfortably and offer advice to my team-mates if needed and I feel like the tough times have really helped me towards this Olympics. I feel like the best is yet to come out in Tokyo. I think we can do something special.”
Towards the end of last year Dan Bibby, another veteran of the Rio campaign, was on the verge of walking away from rugby and any dreams of a second Olympics. There were two principle reasons for that; the first was the uncertainty what the Team GB sevens programme would look like, with the second being a questioning of his priorities after his wife Katie’s father was diagnosed with motor-neurone disease.
Once news of the redundancies were confirmed the Bibby family sold their London home and moved back up north, with the 30-year-old taking on the role as house husband caring for sons Jasper and Jude as Katie provided for the family working as a psychologist. Once a path towards Tokyo was established it wasn’t a guarantee that Bibby would be there.
Dan Bibby has moved back up north to raise his family
Credit: Paul Grover
/Paul Grover for the Telegraph
“It has been a very difficult year for my family. I didn’t know if it was the right time to be away from them,” he says.
But he decided to commit to one more Olympics, although the Tokyo Games will be his last dance as a professional sportsman.
“I spoke to Katie at length about whether I would go back and when the call came we decided the situation with sevens was temporary and I will give it everything for the Olympics and then I think I will call it a day when I come home,” he says. “I was finding things hard enough before the pandemic with travel and Katie having to look after the kids and work and with this situation, it has become too much.
“My time at the moment is actually very selfish, I have been travelling to and from camp but after Tokyo my energy needs to switch from rugby to the family but it is a decision I am very happy with.
“It has been a big hit for Katie to take with her dad, her job and the kids and then I have been burning the candle at both ends. Luckily our training has been four-day camps and I can give it everything but when I come home I am trying to do everything I can to look after the kids and Katie and make sure she has someone to unload to.”
The reality of juggling family and commitment to his sport is not easy for Bibby or any of those in Tokyo with families at home.
“I feel like I am in a circus and I am spinning plates and every single one is ready to fall, because sometimes you can drop one or two, but right now in my life everything I am balancing is important. The Olympics, the family, Katie are all so important but once Tokyo is over, I look forward to things being lighter. I look back to when I was a young player and I didn’t have the same responsibilities and laugh but I wouldn’t change anything. I am doing this Olympics for my family to make them proud.”