6 The Daily Telegraph Wednesday 23 September 2020 *** Sport Covid crisis England’s silver medal-winning rugby sevens team from Rio have become gardeners and child minders since the RFU cut them adrift – and now fear for their dreams of glory in Tokyo T his was not how Tom Mitchell was expecting to be spending the final throes of summer. The Great Britain Sevens captain could have been basking in the afterglow of a triumphant Olympic Games, and looking forward to another season travelling the world with England in the HSBC Rugby World Sevens Series: instead, he is offering to make tea in his mother-in-law’s back garden, attempting to reconfigure a future which has been brutally ripped from him. First, the Olympics fell victim to Covid-19; then, as the crisis continued to bite, England’s men and women sevens players were made redundant by the Rugby Football Union, as part of swingeing cuts imposed by the governing body in the wake of the pandemic. In the grieving process, Mitchell appears to be yo-yoing between despondency and acceptance, judging by how his mood shifts in our interview, from moments of quiet contemplation to genuine amusement at how a squad of players who won silver medals at the Rio Games four years ago now find themselves in the sporting wilderness, 10 months out from the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics. Mitchell and his wife, Flo, escaped London for his mother-in-law’s home in Hampshire as they planned for their new normal. England men’s and women’s sevens teams qualified on behalf of Team GB for Tokyo. The plan had been for the men to be called back on a parttime basis to take part in training camps, but that was predicated on the RFU’s hope that sevens players would pick up XVs contracts. As it stands, only four out of 18 men – Dan Norton, Will Muir, Ben Harris and Charlton Kerr – have received such deals. Unlike most Olympic sports, rugby sevens does not receive funding from UK Sport and, with the main feeder programmes being cut, England players launched a crowdfunding scheme to aid their preparations. That has offered some short-term focus, at least, but Mitchell is struggling to process what he has lost. “I have been living in the extremes of my emotional range,” he says. “There are days when I have had very little to do and a lot of time to reflect, and I have kind of been at peace. I stepped out of that daily schedule of ‘push, push, push’ and I have been really grateful for that but, on the other end of the spectrum, there have been days where I feel so heavy and bogged down with it all, worried about whether you are going to live out your dream of going to the Olympics next year. “Then I am worried about just making the most of this time now. I am worried about what we had and what we built and the worry of will we ever have the chance to properly end what we had?” Mitchell is conscious that, as a public school and Oxford-educated white athlete, his complaints at unfair treatment at the hands of the RFU might not be met with widespread sympathy. But sevens players – even at the elite end – are hardly millionaires. Academy players earn around £5,000 per annum plus accommodation costs, while the bulk of male players are paid £20,000-£50,000. A small number of senior players are at a higher scale – up to £90,000 – but that is a long way short of average earnings in the Gallagher Premiership, where salaries are normally £100,000£130,000. Besides, Mitchell is long past the point of attempting to bottle his frustrations. “I am aware that from the position I am coming from, people will be looking at me and think ‘why is he complaining?’ ‘The RFU are going to want our services at some point, they are not looking after their assets’ time “to find himself” since being laid off. Their contrasting characters perhaps inform their practical responses to redundancy: Burgess has found himself a job as director of rugby at Cranleigh School in Surrey, while Mitchell has a mishmash of interests, from coaching children living in Rio’s favelas via Zoom, to corporate personal development coaching. He is also working on a freelance basis for a non-alcoholic beer company, while also taking time to complete a diploma in psychotherapy and indulge in his passion for writing. Players have had to get creative with their career choices. Mike Ellery is working in oil brokerage, while Alex Davis found himself unemployed and has picked up gardening jobs for neighbours. Another Rio survivor, Dan Bibby, is looking after sons Jasper and Jude while clinical psychologist wife, Katie, supports the family. Mitchell has been under particular stress as captain. He has seen three years of funding cuts from the RFU, from the loss of highly rated assistant coach Tony Roques in 2018 to players being asked to purchase their own energy sweets to make annual savings of “But the RFU are going to want our services again at some point, and they are not looking after their assets. I understand that there is no money for salaries – I can swallow that – but there must be ways that are very cheap of keeping guys supported, even if it is finding somewhere for people to train.” Mitchell is not alone in his efforts to seek solutions to the players’ plight. He has been joined in the fundraising effort by fellow Rio veteran Phil Burgess: as well as crowdfunding, the pair are looking to corporate sponsorship and wealthy patrons as sources of income to revive their Olympic dreams. Burgess, 32, likes to think that the pair work well off the field due to their relationship on it – he leads the defence, and Mitchell the attack – and their complementing personalities. Burgess describes himself as “direct”, while Mitchell is happy to admit that he has taken
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