Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Less competitive countries hone in on sevens knowledge with eyes on Rio Olympics

Moscow seems an appropriate place to conjure up conspiracy theories. Shadows lurk at every corner in a city which epitomised the Soviet Cold War era. The legend of the Kim Philby-led Cambridge spies, the seemingly impenetrable wall surrounding the Kremlin and the inculcated fear of Stalinist purges all add to a fascinating historical tapestry.

All Blacks sevens coach Gordon Tietjens is also seeing the odd shadow as his side prepares for the World Cup this weekend. They are the sort of murky figures which might suddenly leap into a backline during the inaugural 2016 Olympic Games competition to intercept a pass which prevents New Zealand from getting a gold gong.

New Zealand play their first World Cup pool match at 11.44 tonight against Canada, followed by matches against Georgia and the United States to see how they progress in a quadrennial tournament they haven't won since 2001, despite being world series winners 11 times in 14 seasons.

In four other World Cups Fiji have won two (1997, 2005), England one (1993) and Wales are defending champions.

"I'm aware all countries are looking for expertise as we head into the Olympic cycle," Tietjens says. "Lesser teams like the United States and Russia are doing a lot more research. That means more knowledge is shared. There are already fine margins between about seven or eight teams."

Countries such as Olympic hosts Brazil, China and India have also sought help. The International Rugby Academy New Zealand has begun tailoring courses to cater for the overseas thirst for sevens knowledge. Courses include input from sevens experts such as Craig de Goldi, Karl Te Nana and former All Black Christian Cullen.

The Canterbury union has a development deal in place with Brazil while Taranaki has worked with Beijing's Xiannongtan Athletics School, which has produced several Olympic champions.

Tietjens hints player priorities will need to change if New Zealand is to add an Olympic gold medal to four consecutive Commonwealth Games titles.

"This is a beginning in a sense, things will change more leading into Rio and our Olympic playing stocks will be boosted. We're going to require a lot more player depth in the coming years because veterans like DJ Forbes, Tomasi Cama and Lote Raikabula [who played in the last World Cup] are not always going to be there."

Speaking of veterans, Jonah Lomu, Eric Rush and Brad Fleming visited the side to impart wisdom before the team flew out. To put New Zealand's World Cup record in perspective, Lomu and Rush lined up in the team that last won against Australia in the 2001 final.

Tietjens, as is his meticulous way having coached the national side since 1994, refuses to leave anything to chance.

"I've been surprised here in Moscow with the training facilities. They're impressive. The organisers have clearly done the hard yards. Temperatures have been balmy at around 24-25 degrees and have been up to 32 degrees on the odd occasion. We're battling the language barrier a bit but otherwise everyone is fine considering it's the first time anyone has played here."

Teams will play in the 89,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium. The 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 2008 Champions League football final were held there. This year's track and field world championships and the 2018 soccer World Cup final are on the itinerary.

New Zealand women's coach Sean Horan has a cleaner slate to work with than Tietjens, given this year was the debut of the women's world series (New Zealand won) and there has only been one previous World Cup, in 2009 - New Zealand lost to Australia.

Like Tietjens, Horan can feel eyes boring in on his charges as the form team.

"It's like we come wearing All Blacks badges. With big traditional Olympic countries getting boosted funding for sevens programmes you can see them starting to do things differently, even if they are learning. The change has been rapid and professional."

Russia have been a prime mover, despite getting to train outdoors only about five months a year. They drew with New Zealand in the sevens round at Dubai.

New Zealand's women's team receives $1.6 million in high performance investment over two years. The men's side - now known for international branding purposes as the All Blacks Sevens - get $4.8 million over the Olympic campaign. The women must earn the right to more. Winning the 2012-13 series title was the perfect start.


Andrew Alderson travelled to Moscow with the assistance of New Zealand Rugby.

- NZ Herald

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