Rugby Sevens: Tietjens ponders side for Olympics

By Daniel Richardson

Despite reports to the contrary, Tietjens said no approach had been made to Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson about a move to rugby sevens. Photo / APN
Despite reports to the contrary, Tietjens said no approach had been made to Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson about a move to rugby sevens. Photo / APN

As New Zealand sevens coach Sir Gordon Tietjens thinks about who he will have at his disposal for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, he is left with more questions than answers.

The super coach, who has guided New Zealand to a world series title 11 times in 14 seasons, hopes he will have a collection of top players who commit to sevens ahead of the Olympics - but he won't know for at least another year who will make the jump.

With next year's World Cup looming as a massive carrot for the All Blacks, many of the top players will choose to focus their attention there and won't publicly say where they intend to play the following year.

Tietjens confirmed players will need to make a commitment from the start of 2016 to give him time to assess whether they have what it takes to make it as a sevens player.

"To be good at this game, you've got to be training it and playing it, simple as that," Tietjens said. "It's fine if these guys declare their availability for the sevens and that's what they want to do - but if they've expressed a real interest to go to the Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games, then they've got to actually play in a world series tournament and they've got to prove that they're better than the players I have in my current squad."

Keeping that in mind, Tietjens thought back to the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where Australia tried calling on established Wallabies such as Chris Latham. New Zealand tipped them up 21-19 in the semifinals on their way to a gold medal.

"It didn't work simply because they didn't have enough time," Tietjens said.

While there's plenty of rugby to be played before anyone will have to make a definitive call, hypothetically somebody such as Sonny Bill Williams, who will play league for the Sydney Roosters this season, could be part of the All Blacks squad for next year's World Cup and then commit to sevens.

"I've got to wait and see," Tietjens said. "Because anything could happen in the next couple of years. Sonny Bill Williams has got to come back to rugby union first."

Another league convert, Benji Marshall, seems tailor-made for the game given his elusive step and running ability.

"Benji Marshall's a fine touch player and touch is the nearest relation to sevens rugby. So he'd pick up the game no problem whatsoever," Tietjens said.

Despite reports to the contrary, Tietjens said no approach had been made to Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson about a move to rugby sevens.

"I've never met Shaun Johnson," Tietjens said. "There's been a lot of speculation in media interviews that I've had dinner with him and discussed it with him."

This year's Glasgow Commonwealth Games will serve as another opportunity for Tietjens to have a look at potential Olympic recruits - providing they're not a current All Black or their Super Rugby side isn't in the play-offs.

Tietjens said players wouldn't have to attend a world series tournament to be eligible for Glasgow but would need to prove themselves at a trial camp closer to the time, similar to Ben Smith in 2010 as he eventually featured heavily in the side's gold medal effort in New Delhi.

Around 25 Super Rugby players have indicated to Tietjens they want to be considered for Glasgow but there's various factors that will sway their eligibility before he can get his hands on them. Tietjens has to be mindful of contingency plans, particularly in key positions.

Veteran playmaker Tomasi Cama has indicated he wants to push on to the Olympics in 2016 but will be 35 when the Olympics roll around.

Without him, New Zealand are a different side and they felt the pinch in the Las Vegas tournament two weeks ago when Cama was out injured and the Kiwis went down 14-7 against South Africa in the final.

"It's building depth overall that's pretty key for us," Tietjens said. "I'm out there looking for players all the time."

One of Tietjens' strengths as a coach has been his uncanny ability to unearth players and produce competitive sides.

Even in Wellington, Tietjens invited a couple of local players to join the New Zealand side in their final training run on Thursday ahead of this weekend's world series tournament after they had mentioned they were keen on learning more about the game.

Tietjens has a tough job on his hands to keep his side at the front of the pack given the growing skill level in the game.

The greater global emphasis on sevens has meant countries such as Kenya, Wales, France and Australia have moved into the top tier of talent alongside New Zealand, England, South Africa, Fiji and Samoa.

Heading into this weekend's leg of the world series in Wellington, New Zealand skipper DJ Forbes acknowledged the fields were deeper nowadays. But there's also an element of caution in loading up your team with All Blacks.

"In the last four or five years, there's been usually six teams that could win it and now, as everyone can see, any 12, any 16 teams could potentially win a tournament," Forbes said. "So it could be because of the inclusion at the Olympics but, in saying that, if there's a team that's got a good core group that has been together long enough, that seems to reap dividends when we see they're just having new players work around some core players."

It may have been a not-so-subtle suggestion to Tietjens that holding on to his tried and true players such as Forbes, Cama, Lote Raikabula and Tim Mikkelson for the upcoming major tournaments will help New Zealand form a gold medal calibre squad.

- APNZ

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