x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Varndell has the X-factor

Ben Gollings, the highest point scorer in IRB Sevens history, tips the flying winger to be England's "next big thing".

Tom Varndell during the friendly between England Saxons and Portugal at Edgeley Park in January.
Tom Varndell during the friendly between England Saxons and Portugal at Edgeley Park in January.

DUBAI // When Ben Gollings, the highest point scorer in IRB Sevens history, debated who England could possibly add to their in-form squad to improve it for the World Cup, he suggested "someone with a little bit of the X-factor". It was not difficult to guess who the experienced No10 had in mind, as he then led on to say: "Tom Varndell is probably the fastest thing we have seen on a rugby pitch." It is a sentiment that has been uttered before. Gordon Tietjens, the New Zealand coach, said exactly the same thing after watching Varndell blow away the competition at the 2005 Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, which England won.

Tietjens knows a thing or two about it, having blooded the All Blacks Joe Rokocoko and Stiveni Sivivatu through his team in the past. Such was his impact on the sevens scene in 2005, experienced observers suggested Varndell was destined for greatness on the rugby field. Austin Healey, the former England back and a Leicester Tigers teammate of Varndell, labelled the flying winger "the next big thing in English rugby, after Jonny Wilkinson." Yet Varndell, who is still only 23, has stuttered since. He started this season as part of the England 15s manager Martin Johnson's core squad, but fell out of favour after rarely making his club side's starting line-up.

Now Ben Ryan, England's sevens coach, has afforded him the chance to return to the form of the game which originally launched him on the international stage. England have reached four of the past five finals in the IRB Series. It has been the best run of results so far since Ryan took on the coach's mantle two years ago. The timing has been precise. Going into the World Cup, England top the IRB World Series, level on points with South Africa. The coach said: "I am immensely proud of the squad's successes so far this season. This is one of England Sevens' most successful periods, reaching four of the last five finals going into a World Cup is unbelievably exciting." Ryan's enviable attacking options for the trip to Dubai have been supplemented further by the return of Joshua Drauniniu.

The Fiji-born winger, who serves in the British Navy, starred on his international debut in the UAE in November, yet has not featured since due to club and work commitments. pradley@thenational.ae

Kevin Barrett (Exeter Chiefs), Tom Biggs (Leeds Carnegie), Chris Cracknell (Exeter Chiefs), Isoa Damudamu (British Army/Wasps), Josh Drauniniu (Royal Navy/Exeter Chiefs), Ben Gollings (Gold Coast, Australia), Ollie Phillips (Captain, Newcastle Falcons), James Rodwell (Moseley), Charlie Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), Tom Varndell (Leicester Tigers), Rob Vickerman (Leeds Carnegie), Andy Vilk (Benetton Treviso)