Rugby sevens spotlight on: Dan Norton
A smile crosses Dan Norton's face when you suggest that Team GB are a long shot for the Olympic sevens title.
A smile borne from a belief that, no matter the difficulties of merging three nations and without any World Series events to compete in, GB have all the tools needed to strike gold.
“It’s quite nice that people don’t know a lot about us,” says the Englishman, the sharpest blade of all with 210 series tries in his locker.
“From one to 12, or the one to 27 who are training, you can see there’s a lot of high quality in the squad.
“And we’re training as hard as ever to catch up and get ourselves into a good place. You’re looking over to see what the guys from Scotland and Wales are squatting or lifting or how fast they’re running. You’re trying to compete with that. That’s good for the whole squad, it’s what you need to do to get to that gold medal standard.”
Norton is careful to add the “if selected” proviso when discussing rio, but his omission would cause a bigger rumble than the Brexit referendum result. Since bursting onto the scene with a winning try against New Zealand in the 2009 London Sevens final, he’s given every team the runaround, helped by standing-start sprint times (2.7secs for 20m) that put even Usain Bolt in the shade.
Concerns about his defence have long since been assuaged, with his speed allowing him to close down people’s space with comforting consistency and his contact skills making giant strides under defence coach Tony Roques. When Simon Amor, with his England hat on, was resting players for the latter legs of the World Series, Norton was first to be wrapped in cotton wool.
His old buddies from Spartans, the Gloucester club where the journey began, would be proud to see how far he has gone. Back in the mid-Nineties, Norton would relish the 20-minute Saturday cycle to the club, where his dad Aubrey, a welder, played on the wing for the thirds. Afterwards the jukebox would go on and there would be singing and dancing, fags smoked and beers drunk with your opposite man. “It had a nice amateur social feel to it. It feels like 50 years ago,” Norton reflects.
When his dad, who still plays at 67, suggested he start playing instead of watching, young Dan was hesitant. “But I did and realised I was one of the faster guys.”
Those legs carried him headily into England U20’s 2008 Grand Slam-winning squad, albeit as a fringe member. Noah Cato and Miles Benjamin were the favoured flyers and Norton, by then attached to Gloucester but on loan to Moseley, was to travel a different route.
In the 2007 Middlesex Sevens, Newcastle’s Ollie Phillips ran over Norton for a try and turned round to say, “Little boy!”. But Norton’s mesmerising pace couldn’t be ignored and he soon joined Phillips in the England fold.
England briefly led the series in his debut season, a far cry from their recent eighth-place finish. In Las Vegas they failed to win a game, Norton calling it “the lowest point of my career”, but their campaign was always going to be compromised by the need to juggle resources ahead of a busy summer bedding in GB’s systems in four European tournaments.
With seven full years of sevens behind him, compared to ten seconds of Premiership rugby (he chased a penalty), will Norton stay in his current code forever?
“The main pull was to stay for the Olympics and to reassess once I’ve done that. People would say my skill-set complements sevens, making space and beating people, and I’m pretty terrible at 15s!
“It’s a unique environment to be able to go round the world and be sat in New Zealand watching rugby on TV, seeing a Leicester driving lineout and driving rain and wingers getting no ball. That’s one of the main reasons I want to play sevens – to run around in nice places.”
Now Rio joins his exotic list. The GB squad flew to Brazil on July 28, where they are staying in a holding camp. Stuart Pearce and Denise Lewis have spoken to the squad about what to expect and Norton can barely contain his excitement.
“The main message was that however big you think this is, it’s even bigger than that. There will be 11,000 athletes, a community of athletes there for the same thing, an amazing once-in-a-lifetime thing.
“It’s something you need to think about before you get there. You don’t want to spend the whole time being bright-eyed. Denise Lewis said in her first race she saw her idol next to her and it took her a few events to hit her stride. You must enjoy the amazing experience but remember why you’re there. You’re there to play rugby.”