Thursday 19 March 2020 6:06 pm

Ollie Phillips: Re-writing history by helping England Sevens win in New Zealand is my career highlight

A year beforehand I would never have thought that 2009 would contain the highlight of my rugby playing career.

I wasn’t involved with the England Sevens team for the majority of the 2007-08 season, but Ben Ryan brought me back into the fold for the final two tournaments of the season.

I had brought some energy on my return and, having not selected me previously, Ryan made a big U-turn, appointing me captain for the next season.

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We were building some momentum and played well in Dubai, reaching the final, but a dislocated elbow made me touch-and-go for the next two tournaments in New Zealand and Australia.

I worked really hard in rehab and thankfully managed to get selected for the trip to Wellington in early 2009.

Laughing stock

Traditionally England had been terrible in Wellington. We never got out of the group stages and were pretty much a laughing stock in the country.

Ollie Phillips
Phillips was top try-scorer at the 2009 Wellington Sevens with seven (Photo by Victor Fraile / Getty Images)

However, we stuffed Fiji and beat Kenya, which was a feather in the cap because they were led by former England coach Mike Friday, to reach the final against hosts New Zealand.

Wellington’s stadium is known as the Cake Tin and it is an intimidating place to play, with fans right on top of you. The home supporters weren’t exactly fond of us either, partly because of me!

Angering the locals

We had the Thursday before the tournament off and as captain I thought it would be a good idea to organise a tour of Wellington, so I wrote to the local Harley Davison owners club to try and get a guided tour. 

I wasn’t expecting a response, but they agreed and we went around the city in our England branded waterproofs on the back of America’s finest motorcycles – perhaps some health and safety concerns, but not an issue in 2009!

New Zealand International Sevens - Day 2
England upset the hosts to win it (Photo by Marty Melville / Getty Images)

Unfortunately the drivers’ over-eager revving of their engines set off car alarms along the high street, which caused quite a stir among unhappy residents. Wearing our England gear made it quite obvious who the culprits were too.

Massive underdogs

The final came around quickly and we were massive underdogs, so when we fell 17-0 behind the vast majority would have written us off. I managed to run in a 60-yard try just before half-time to give us a glimmer of hope (I don’t think anyone believe I could actually run that far to be honest) and Ryan gave a great team talk.

He didn’t rant and rave, instead just saying calmly that we had the fitness levels to do it. He was right.

Rob Vickerman got an interception to run in from inside our own half to make it 17-12, but time was running out. With 30 seconds left it looked like our chances were over when Kevin Barrett gave possession away with a box-kick. 

Moment of truth

Incredibly, Tom Biggs won us the ball back with the only turn over in his life! We then tapped a quick penalty and charged forward.

When Isoa Damu got the ball in space I was screaming for it on the outside. The ball never came because he powered in to score under the posts and give Ben Gollings a kick to win it 19-17.

New Zealand International Sevens - Day 2
Phillips got to lift the trophy in Wellington after a brilliant comeback (Photo by Marty Melville / Getty Images)

Despite the booing from the stands, he did and after an hours-long wait to complete a drugs test we tried to leave the stadium.

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The problem was there was a huge crowd of Kiwis waiting for our team bus. It looked like we were in trouble, but it turned out they weren’t hostile at all. After an hour of shaking hands we abandoned our trip back to the hotel to go celebrate in town. 

It was a brilliant, unprecedented win for England and to have captained the side made it even sweeter. 

Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development & behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn