This is the story of a man who has played barely 10 seconds of Premiership rugby yet has earned genuine respect on every continent. Having already won an Olympic medal, he is now one try away from overtaking everyone who has ever picked up a ball and run with it. Not bad for a welder’s son from Gloucestershire who was dismissed as too lightweight to make a career out of “proper” rugby.
Little wonder Dan Norton gave silent thanks last summer as he took in the panoramic views across Rio and reflected on his “incredible” sporting odyssey. This week, at the Hong Kong Sevens, everyone will know his name as he looks to become the all-time highest try-scorer in rugby’s abbreviated form; once he returns home to Wraysbury near Staines, it is high time more people saluted his achievements.
Now 29, Norton has been running in tries for England since 2009 without a great deal in the way of national newspaper fanfare. There are still those who will read about his tally of 244 tries – currently level with the world record held by Kenya’s Collins Injera – and blithely assume they were scored in an inferior form of the game under limited pressure. Better, perhaps, to investigate Norton’s best moments on YouTube before recycling that old-school view. Clutching a ball, he once clocked 2.70sec for 20 metres, making him faster out of the blocks than Usain Bolt.
One or two Premiership clubs have certainly missed a trick. Back in March 2008 Norton was on Gloucester’s books alongside James Simpson-Daniel, Jonny May and Charlie Sharples and, with Dean Ryan’s Cherry and Whites badly stretched by international calls, made it on to the field for the dying seconds against London Irish: “I was shoved on in the 80th minute and told to chase a penalty kick.” Gloucester won the game but it was to prove Norton’s solitary Premiership outing.
“I would like to have played a lot more fifteens but that’s the way a professional career goes. Occasionally when I pop back and see my parents in Gloucester I do think: ‘What if?’ At times it’s a horrible thought but I’m very fortunate sevens has put me where I am today and given me the confidence and ability to show my skills on a world stage.”
A new three-year deal will enable him to keep circumnavigating the globe, even if the regular absences from his girlfriend and 14-month-old son are occasionally tough to bear. It helps that England have kicked on since the Olympics, winning the Cape Town and Vancouver legs of the world sevens series and lying second in the overall standings with four rounds to go.
It would make victory in Hong Kong, Norton’s 64th world series event, doubly sweet. His former coach Ben Ryan, who presided over Fiji’s Olympic triumph, gave him his debut and remembers instructing the young sprinter to go out and score the winning try in the final in London against New Zealand: “He almost went green but did exactly that.” Ryan also recalls Norton’s frequent offers to look after any trophies his team won, some of which ended up being taken back to the latter’s father, Aubrey, for mending. Norton senior still plays aged 68 for Spartans in Gloucester, incidentally, although his son jokes this longevity is mostly “an excuse to get out of the house”.
All the high jinks, air miles and records have also not shaken Norton’s conviction that talented youngsters, whether perceived as too small or not, should play more sevens: “I think it helps a player no end. For most players from the back row backwards, it helps your skill-set – your passing, your catching, your decision-making. Not only do you have to be fit and strong; you have to be fast and have a good game IQ. It makes you an all-round better player in a more intense environment than playing in the A league or getting loaned out to a Championship club.”
The latest example is Marcus Watson, Anthony’s brother, who is switching from Newcastle to Wasps this summer and others will be tempted now full-time contracts are available: “Back in the day me and James Rodwell used to rock up with a few others two or three days before we flew out to a tournament. We’d get back and there would be no contact time for three to four weeks. Now we’re in Monday to Friday.”
Terrestrial television coverage of the Olympics also projected the game to a wider audience: “People on my street at home were saying: ‘Did you win a medal?’ It reached many more people than it normally does, which is why the Olympics are so special.”
Ask Norton, finally, for one word to describe the sevens experience in Hong Kong and he chooses “mayhem”. A rock star one week, invisible the next: England’s serial marksman long ago learned to appreciate the good times when they come: “I never thought I’d be in this position when I first started. I’m pretty humbled. It’s more about playing well as a team and getting a few more tournament wins. That’s what we’re really after.”
Pause for thought
The European Champions Cup quarter-finals produced four worthy winners – and congratulations, too, to the tournament organisers for seeking to spread the gospel by staging the 2018 and 2019 finals in Bilbao and Newcastle respectively. Between now and then it must be hoped someone will have introduced an improved system of TMO referrals that does not involve endlessly stopping the game. To call for a video replay while a goal-kicker is about to commence his run-up (Bath’s Rhys Priestland in this instance) is ridiculous; to waste time deliberating over barely-there forward passes while blatant neck rolls at rucks or absurdly crooked feeds go unpunished is equally illogical. How much more sensible to give each team a maximum of three potential video referrals per game – requested on the spot or not at all – with the referee otherwise encouraged to use his own discretion. Serious acts of foul play caught on camera but missed by officials at the time would be dealt with retrospectively. This would have the benefit of stopping players instinctively appealing for video referrals and help to speed the game up for the paying punter. It is the match-turning howler that undermines top-level rugby, not the occasional human error.
Big games come thick and fast in modern rugby but there is an extra dimension to this weekend’s fixture between Bath and Leicester at Twickenham. Fifty per cent of the net proceeds from Upper Tier tickets sold (£15 for adults, £5 for children) will be shared between Help for Heroes and the Bath Rugby Foundation, the club’s charitable arm. As well as assisting physically injured servicemen, the money will go towards helping a range of people requiring support in the face of mental adversity. The former Bath and England hooker Lee Mears, forced to retire prematurely after being diagnosed with a heart condition, is among those who empathises with those in need: “It [retiring] was like mourning a death, a very bleak time. My purpose and direction had disappeared. At first I didn’t know what to do next and was really worried that losing my identity would mean I was forgotten about so quickly and had let everyone around me down.” For more information, click here.