I used to think that I was fast. I was always among the quickest in any team I played in. But everything changed in 2014, at the Amsterdam Rugby Sevens. 

I had been invited, along with my brother, to play for the invitational Samurai RFC (Now Shogun Rugby). We were an eclectic team, with players from seven different countries and coached by current USA men’s head coach, Mike Friday. 

He had brought along one of his rising stars – a player starting to turn heads in the world of sevens rugby. 

He was an all-American track star and American football player and described as the fastest man in rugby. 

His name? Carlin Isles.

That weekend I had my eyes opened to a new definition of speed, something I hadn’t experienced before. Even in the warm-up drills, he was pulling away from me with minimal effort in just two or three steps. It was like running against a superhuman … it was unfair. 

We went on to win the tournament. He played a pivotal role, including a length-of-the-field try in the dying seconds of the final. 

Isles is now a household name in rugby, having scored 217 tries in international sevens. He is the fastest player I have ever played with or against, and his speed needs to be seen in person to be believed. 

Isles’s stats only enhance the claim of him being the fastest player in World Rugby. In 2012, the same year as the London Olympics, he ran a 10.13s 100m, fast enough to qualify for the semi-finals. 

In 2013, while signed to the National Football League’s (NFL) Detroit Lions, Iles ran the 40-yard dash in 4.22s. This is still the fastest time ever run at an NFL Combine and was equalled by John Ross in 2017. 

Isles sits comfortably at the top of the fastest players leaderboard, but how quick do you need to be to play international sevens? 

Sevens games are naturally faster than 15s games with the reduced number of players leading to more space on the pitch to attack and defend. Sevens players need to be extremely fit – but the metric that every player will know about themselves is their top speed. 

Most sevens teams will conduct two dedicated speed sessions a week and they are always a favourite among players. 

With advances in personal Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which each player wears in the collar of their jersey, real-time feedback on top speeds can be accessed during or immediately after sessions. It’s the first stat every player will check and compare to others. 

The fastest speed I ever recorded was 9.6m/s (34.6km/h or 21.5mph) while trying to chase someone down. Incidentally, a large proportion of players I’ve spoken to also hit their top speeds while chasing someone. I assume it’s a combination of having two free arms and a target to aim for. 

Isles’s top speed was recorded at 11.5m/s (41.4km/h or 25.7mph). For the record, Usain Bolt’s top speed was 12.3m/s (44.3km/h 27.3mph) during his 9.58s 100m world R#record run. 

To put these numbers into perspective, when Carlin makes a linebreak in attack and I try to chase him down, I will fall two metres further behind every second. This only means one thing ... try time!

This is the main reason that sevens players are so obsessed with their top speeds. It is no coincidence that almost all of the top try scorers in sevens are wingers. There is no substitute for speed and the current crop of stars have speed to burn. 

Perry Baker and Marcos Moneta are two absolute flyers in the men’s game, clocking top speeds of 11.2m/s (40.3 km/h or 25.1mph). This helps them consistently finish among the top try scorers in tournament after tournament. 

In the women’s game, Maddison Levi and Grace Crompton are two strong contenders for the fastest women on the series, with top speeds of 9.4m/s (33.8km/h or 21mph). No wonder they’re a nightmare for any defender trying to chase them down. 

The top speeds of these players are impressive – but what often goes unrecognised is their ability to repeat these numbers over a tournament weekend as fatigue sets in. 

This repeatability is often the biggest adaptation new players have to make when they debut on HSBC SVNS. Speed endurance is a key quality when assessing fitness for sevens. 

Another key metric is the minimum top speed you need to hit to play at the elite level. This number would vary across teams and between strength and conditioning coaches, but from my experience in the men’s game, 9.0m/s (32.4km/h or 20.1mph) is a good estimate. For the women’s game, 8.0m/s (28.8km/h or 17.9mph). 

So, what’s it like to play against the world’s fastest players? 

Put simply, it’s horrible. It’s like running in a dream – you’re putting in maximum effort but still going backwards. You do, inevitably, get run around if you play sevens at elite level, but it’s still an awful feeling when it happens. That last-ditch effort at a diving ankle tap rarely comes off, so you are often reduced to pushing that player who’s just skinned you out to a corner to make the conversion more difficult. 

All hope is not lost, however, as there are tactics to try to negate someone’s speed. 

The first is sitting on the speedster’s outside shoulder, making the distance that they have to run around you further and forcing them to step back inside. 

The second is putting two defenders on the player to reduce the time and space that they have to attack. This is often the case when teams play with seven players in the defensive line. 

The final technique is forcing that player to make a large number of plays straight after each other. This can be done by running at them in defence again and again to tire them out by making them tackle. 

Each of these techniques has its drawbacks. By fortifying one side of your defence, you are likely to free up attacking opportunities on the other. 

Perhaps the hardest question ever posed to a defence in sevens has been when the USA would play Carlin Isles and Perry Baker at the same time. 

The speed of sevens makes it so exciting for players and fans alike. It’s also what makes it an incredible development tool for young players.

You can catch all the action as Perry Baker steps out on home soil as the HSBC SVNS 2024 circus rolls into Los Angeles this weekend.