Given his enthusiasm for the game and how quickly he used to shift on the rugby pitch, it is little wonder that Dan Norton has not let the grass grow under his feet now that he has retired as a player.

The former England and Great Britain flyer hung up his boots back in March after a stellar 13-year international career that saw him score a record 358 World Series tries, play in 92 tournaments and appear in multiple Rugby World Cup Sevens and Commonwealth Games as well as win a silver medal at the Rio Olympics.

For the past four months, initially in Marlow in England but now out in China, Norton has been working as an assistant coach with the China men’s sevens team alongside former England Sevens team-mates, Ollie Phillips (head coach) and Tom Biggs (S&C).

“The goal for us is the Olympic qualifier at the back end of next year. We’ve got an awesome opportunity and we’ll do everything we can with the resources we have to try and qualify. Getting a team to the Olympics is massive in China” said Norton, from his base in the Shandong province.

“There’s Hong Kong, who’ll obviously be competitive, Japan are in the World Series and there’s Korea, who competed at the Olympics, and maybe one or two others like Sri Lanka, so there are four or five teams who are evenly matched.”

Playing catch-up

As things stand, China’s women’s sevens team is more advanced in its development than the men’s having competed at both the Tokyo Olympics and Rugby World Cup Sevens in the last 14 months.

The Osea Kolinisau-coached side also came close to qualifying as a core team for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023, finishing third in the Challenger Series event in Santiago in August.

“The men haven’t quite hit those heights,” said Norton.

“The hardest thing from our point of view is the game understanding of the players.

“I started playing when I was nine years old whereas a lot of these guys have only two to three years of experience of playing the sport and come from other sports.

“They have the raw ability to change direction really well and just run, so they are good athletes, they just need to improve their game understanding.”

Kolinisau led Fiji to the first-ever Olympic gold medal in rugby sevens in Rio in 2016, beating a Great Britain side containing Norton in the final.

Instead of being on opposite sides, Norton is now looking forward to the prospect of catching up with the Fijian legend and working together in a bid to make China more successful on two fronts.

“I obviously know Osea Kolinisau from his time playing with Fiji and I have seen him competing with the women on the Challenger Series and at the World Cup as well and it’s a shame they couldn’t get a little bit further,” he said.

“But, yeah, I think we’re open to sharing ideas. He only stopped playing a few years ago and is a legend of the game so it would be cool to hear his insight on the cultural change, the language, and how they operate as a group because they are successful and pushing for bigger things so a collective and collaborative way is probably the best way.”

Soon, China’s men will get the opportunity to put into practice the work they have been doing on the training field.

“The next thing for us as a group is three tournaments in October and November, in Thailand, Korea and then we finish in Dubai,” Norton said, outlining their schedule.

“Hopefully, we should be home for Christmas and then we plan for next season and the onslaught for the Asia Games and into the Olympic Qualifier.

“I am really looking forward to seeing us compete in these next few tournaments and hopefully we can keep taking some strides forward.”

Food for thought

After two weeks in quarantine in his hotel room, Norton and his fellow coaches have finally been able to get a flavour of what China has to offer as a country. 

Culturally and from a cuisine point of view, the 34-year-old admits it has been an eye-opener.

“Just being able to get into China with everything that has been going on with Covid is obviously a big task in itself,” said the man from the English rugby stronghold of Gloucester.

“Now we are here we are able to roam around and do what we want although, at the moment, we haven’t ventured too far away from our hotel.

“Obviously it is so vast so we will only ever see small pockets of it but we will try our best to do some travelling around the coaching.

“Even within China, there’s so many different cultures and people so it is a unique opportunity.”

“We walk in the streets and we are gawped at because we are foreigners. But people have been welcoming and it’s been an awesome experience going out and seeing China for what it is.

“A lot of the food is different. Back home, we have lean cuts of meat whereas they quite literally eat from head to toe. Going around the supermarkets you have duck heads, pigs trotters, and that sort of thing. With all the flavours and garnishes they have, the palates are miles apart.”