x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Armed Forces stalwarts belong in England team

Two of England's likely starting front-three in their opening HSBC World Series match against France today were born abroad, Greg Barden and Isoa Damudamu.

DUBAI // Those antipodean wags who say English sports teams should be renamed Empire teams, given the abundance of overseas-born players, might think they have more fodder for their argument with the England sevens side.

Two of England's likely starting front-three in their opening HSBC World Series match against France today were born abroad, Greg Barden and Isoa Damudamu. Yet to suggest they are flying the flag of convenience, like the rugby players and cricketers who qualify for England on the basis they have lived there for three or four years, would be painfully wide of the mark.

Both serve in the British Armed Forces and have seen active service in many parts of the world. Barden was born in Perth, Australia, where he lived until he was four when his parents moved back to the UK. He has served in the Royal Marines since he was 16.

He has alternated between life as an international rugby player and that of a serviceman since Ben Ryan, the sevens coach, first picked him to play for England in Dubai in 2008.

"For the past three years I have been juggling between the two," said Barden, 29. "When I was 13, I didn't exactly give up on sport but I concentrated on where I wanted to be within the military. I concentrated on that for the first part then found my love for rugby again later on in life."

Barden's role as a Royal Marines corporal has taken him to areas of conflict in South America, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq in recent times. Throwing a rugby ball around in front of 40,000 people at The Sevens might seem somewhat trivial in comparison, but Barden begs to differ.

"It is the reason you play sport," said Barden, who plays at hooker in the England sevens side.

"When it comes down to those moments when the pressure is at its highest, that is the highlight of playing the game. Going out in front of a packed ground in Dubai, and we get very good backing here with all the expats, there is definitely pressure there."

Damudamu was born in Fiji. Despite serving in the army for more than a decade, he only recently secured British citizenship, and that, too, was as a direct consequence of him playing rugby.

As per Commonwealth Games rules, he needed a British passport to play at the Delhi sevens tournament, and had to rush through the application process to make it to India. "He has all the nuances that an Englishman has now," Ryan said of Damudamu. "He likes his cups of tea."

Rugby sevens has traditionally been regarded as an early step on the development pathway for young, aspiring international players. However, Ryan is grateful that he is able to select players of the ilk of Barden and Damudamu, whose experiences beyond the field lend perspective to those they have on it.

"I see a lot of young kids going from 16 straight into pro rugby and they are not quite sure what a hard day's work looks like sometimes," said Ryan

"None of our guys are like that. They have had ups and downs and they understand what it means to work hard."

pradley@thenational.ae