Sevens: Kenya believe it

Kenyan players celebrate their win over New Zealand in the Wellington Sevens semifinal.  Photo / Getty Images
Kenyan players celebrate their win over New Zealand in the Wellington Sevens semifinal. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand's shock exit at the semifinal stage in Wellington sevens at the hands of Kenya last night shows it's not a given the Kiwis will win Olympic gold at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

New Zealand were dumped out of the tournament they covet so dearly by a valiant Kenyan side 19-14 in a sudden-death extra-time thriller as a tough day one appeared to catch up on the home side.

The Kiwis eventually beat Samoa 17-7 in the third place play-off, while England needed extra time to get past Kenya 24-19 in the final.

With sevens set to debut at the Rio Games, countries have stepped up their efforts to ensure they have a shot at being on the podium in three years.

The sevens circuit used to operate as a benefit for Fiji and New Zealand as they were rarely knocked over. But this weekend's tournament has shown that the old guard will have to keep ahead of the pack.

Fiji failed to make it through to the cup stages for the first time in series history after two losses in pool play sent them to the bowl round.

New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens said the chasing group were now on a par with the two giants of the game.

"It doesn't happen that way any more and it's right around the world now. You look at some of the teams that have battled over the weekend and you look at Fiji, the country that probably has more players in the world in sevens rugby than anyone. To go into the bowl for the first time ever, that was a shock to everyone," Tietjens said.

"We are fortunate we haven't been in that situation yet but touch wood it doesn't happen. But you can be pretty close and you look at our last game against the US - it could have easily been another close one like we had tonight."

The United States have begun a sevens programme that contracts 16 players who live at the Olympic training base and are full-time with the sevens squad. New Zealand's players have to balance their sevens commitments on top of their provincial duties and some can even be summoned by the odd Super Rugby team if there is an injury crisis.

Kenya have made huge strides in the game in recent years, as shown by their efforts in Wellington this weekend and - with a few more resources - they could be a genuine threat in Rio.

For the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India (where New Zealand won gold), Tietjens had access to Super Rugby players and All Blacks and he will need that sort of access for Rio. In Delhi, All Blacks Ben Smith, Liam Messam, Zac Guildford and Hosea Gear all played a part in New Zealand's success and a similar selection of internationals will be crucial in 2016.

It will be interesting to see how far out from the Olympics Tietjens asks players to commit to a tilt at the Games, considering the 15-a-side World Cup will be played the year before in England.

He said it was at the point where it was unrealistic to expect players to play a nine-leg sevens world series and 15-a-side provincial rugby.

"I don't think players can back up now playing ITM Cup and sevens rugby on the world series. They just don't get a break and there will be a time, hopefully, in the next 12 months where we contract seven or eight full-time.

"But never go away from the fact we also use it as a launch pad for younger players to come through to Super Rugby and obviously the goal for them is the All Blacks."

New Zealand will be without Kurt Baker for the tournament in Las Vegas next weekend while captain DJ Forbes may also be unavailable due to a knee complaint but more would be known on his injury today.

New Zealand's third-place finish this weekend left them at the top of the world series standings.

- APNZ

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