x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The world at his feet

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just ask Tom Varndell.

The pace and agility of Tom Varndell, right, was too hot to handle for his opponents at the World Cup Sevens in Dubai.
The pace and agility of Tom Varndell, right, was too hot to handle for his opponents at the World Cup Sevens in Dubai.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just ask Tom Varndell. Despite a three-year hiatus, the England winger exerted exactly the same dominance over his opponents during the World Cup Sevens at the weekend as he did in the past. When all was lost in their quarter-final against Samoa, the world's top ranked side and tournament favourites had one game-plan. Give the ball to Varndell.

He repaid the faith, touching down two stunning solo scores to earn England extra-time. Though they were then trumped by Uale Mai and his Samoan side, Varndell had at least made his talent known again. When he made his debut at the Dubai Exiles back in 2005, the Leicester flier became the first player to make a first appearance for England sevens having already played for the 15-man team. A week before arriving in the city, he had crossed the whitewash after coming on as a replacement for England at Twickenham against the full Samoa side.

In Dubai, he scored with his very first touch of the ball, during a pool match against Kenya, and a star, supposedly, had been born. Yet in the intervening time, he has barely scratched the surface of the 15s game. Within a year of his epiphany in the Emirates, he had been farmed out to a national league side (the Bedford Blues) by his club. This season, he has hardly featured in the senior squad at Welford Road, hence his recall to the sevens side for the World Cup.

"I still firmly believe Tom will go on and play a lot of Test match rugby for England," reasoned the coach, Ben Ryan. "Wingers are like highly-tuned athletes, like sprinters, who rely a lot on confidence. "If you get buffeted around various environments, you suffer a little, especially young players. "He is the quickest winger in the English Premiership. We are not talking about a 29-year-old here - he is a perfect example of the classic reason why England run the sevens programme. The World Cup presented him with a real opportunity at a crossroads in his career."

Since his pre-World Cup return, Varndell has clocked the fastest speeds of any England sevens player in the last three years, according to Ryan's Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking results. Even Ben Gollings, who has been there, done it and got the T-shirt in the abridged game, has been stunned. "He is world class," said the game's all-time leading point-scorer Gollings. "The guy has got pace to burn and, on a sevens field, there is no substitute.

"You can have all the skills and steps in the world, but raw pace is going to beat you every time. "He is a brilliant player, and I hope when he gets back [to England] people start to understand what he can do on a rugby field." Given the confidence Varndell gleaned from his seven tries at the World Cup, Martin Johnson could do a lot worse than summon him straight back into the fold for the senior side's Six Nations encounter with France on Sunday.

However, despite his previous platitudes, Gollings is urging caution. "I think that is a big call," he said. "He has set the game alight, but there are stepping stones. The worst thing would be if he went straight into a team and then got the stuffing knocked out of him." Much has changed for the Varndell, 23, since his first sparkling foray on to the international sevens scene back in 2005. For a start, he is 12kgs heavier. "But my speed hasn't dropped at all," he says. "When I first came into sevens I had only been a professional for a year, now I have been a pro for four-and-a-half years.

"The weight has been put on a over a period of time, so speed isn't really an issue." The biggest difference, though, has been the arrival of his son, Taio. Now 18-months-old, Varndell junior is already giving his father a run for his money. "He is pretty quick as well!" said the doting father. "He is actually picking up balls and running around the house with them. "He has given me a lot more focus off the pitch, and that has helped because before I used to go off and do stuff perhaps I shouldn't .

"I've grown up a little bit, but I am still loving being a part of this. Being away is a little bit harder, but I love it. It is nice having a little break from nappies." pradley@thenational.ae