Barbados set for Commonwealth Games rugby sevens 'dream'

By Graham FraserBBC Scotland
Queen's Baton Relay: Barbados

Sean Ward is a car mechanic and delivery driver from Barbados who was expecting to watch the Commonwealth Games this summer with his friends on the idyllic Caribbean island.

Instead, he will run out on the rugby field in front of thousands of fans in Glasgow as part of a team made up of students, teachers and a chef.

A few weeks ago, Nigeria withdrew from the rugby sevens competition at Glasgow 2014. Their place will be taken up by Ward and his countrymen, a team ranked 73rd in the world.

Barbados are now preparing for their first Commonwealth Games rugby sevens appearance. They will take on defending champions New Zealand - who are going for their fifth consecutive gold medal - hosts Scotland and Canada at Ibrox Stadium.

Barbados rugby sevens, in blue, in action against the USA.
Barbados rugby sevens, in blue, in action against the USA.

"It will be a tremendous experience," said 25-year-old Ward, who has ambitions of becoming a professional rugby player.

"It is a big buzz. I have always wanted to be at that level and I will finally be able to step on the field."

Ward, who is pictured on the far right in the main image, will travel to the UK two months before the Games start with many of his team-mates.

They will take part in a series of tournaments across the country before the Games.

He added: "Work is pretty flexible. It gets a bit tough sometimes and you miss home, but in my mind it makes me remember why I am doing it.

"To come from such a small place, people know this is a big thing.

"Rugby [in Barbados] has taken off in the last year.

Joe Whipple
Joe Whipple coached Guyana at the last Commonwealth Games

"Everyone who knows about the Commonwealth and rugby, they recognise me. They say 'don't forget me, I know that guy'."

Ward is one of 27 players who are part of the sevens programme with Barbados. Ten are based on the island, with the other 17 living in the UK.

Their coach, Joe Whipple, splits the group into two teams - the Cous Cous in Barbados (captained by Ward) and the Flying Fish in the UK.

The players take part in separate tournaments then meet up for training camps and tournaments a few times a year.

Whipple conducts strict training programmes with the UK players through Facebook.

One of those taking part in those is Phil Lucas. The 25-year-old, who is the captain of the Flying Fish, works with a healthcare communications agency based in Surrey.

He plays for Guildford in the London 2 South West League, the seventh tier of English rugby.

He said: "I still have to pinch myself. It won't be hard to get us up for those matches. It is not an opportunity that many people will get."

Lucas, who is a former student at the University of Edinburgh, grew up in Cheltenham with a Barbadian father and an English mother.

He became involved with the rugby sevens in Barbados after he was encouraged to try out for the team by compatriot Ben Petit.

Phil Lucas
Phil Lucas will take time off his work in Surrey to play at the Commonwealth Games

Lucas believes there is good competition between the UK-based players and the players in Barbados already, and they will come together with ease in the approach to Glasgow.

He said: "The boys have that huge target of training hard so we don't just make up the numbers. We want to put Barbados on the map and show we can play sevens as well."

For coach Whipple, the Commonwealth Games will be extra special.

He said: "For Barbados, this is the biggest rugby opportunity.

"We want them to come away, regardless of what the result is, with an experience of a lifetime."

A former mining company owner, Whipple settled in Barbados when he retired.

The 60-year-old Canadian, who played rugby at an amateur level in his homeland, became involved with the West Indies team, where he worked with future England stars Delon Armitage and Luther Burrell.

Before the Games, Whipple and Barbados are looking forward to taking part in the HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, which is arguably an even bigger competition for the Caribbean side.

Barbados will compete for the first time with 11 other teams in the qualifying tournament later this month, with the winner invited to compete in the IRB Sevens World Series - the premier competition in the world - next season.

Members of the sevens team took a break from training this week to take part in the Queen's Baton Relay on the island.

The baton is the main attraction in the run-up to Glasgow and is travelling the 70 nations and territories of the Commonwealth before it takes a key role in the opening ceremony of the Games.

Whipple's focus though is on the challenges ahead, especially Glasgow.

"To play against the All Blacks is a dream come true," he said. "You want to play against the best in the world. That is part of your legacy in rugby.

"The second team is Scotland, the home of rugby sevens in the home of rugby sevens. What an atmosphere that is going to be.

"And I am Canadian, so it is always fun to mix it up with Canada.

"We understand the quality of sides. We have no pressure on us."