Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Sevens not seen as best option by stars

Ben Smith's talents and leadership could have boosted the New Zealand sevens team. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ben Smith's talents and leadership could have boosted the New Zealand sevens team. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There have been allegations of coercion and manipulation, but the truth about the process behind recruiting potential sevens medallists for Rio is that New Zealand's best players see the All Blacks as their dream and the Olympics as something nice to have.

The All Blacks and New Zealand sevens side were pitted head-to-head this time last year, with an extended list of players targeted to compromise their test aspirations and join the quest to win an Olympic gold medal.

New Zealand Rugby admit they thought the carrot of an Olympic medal would be too hard to resist and that it threw them that only Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam of those who went to the World Cup gave sevens a go.

The likes of Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Cruden, Israel Dagg and Victor Vito all said no. At the core of their decisions was a desire to play for the All Blacks. For some, there was the fear of not knowing if they would regain their place if they let someone else have it.

For others, it was the desire to take an opportunity they had been waiting so long for. And, for yet others, it was the hunger to force their way back in.

When it came down to it, sevens wanted too much of their time without offering enough in return. Why have an affair if the marriage is strong and means everything?

New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens was understandably disappointed at the low conversion rate. The inclusion of just one of those All Blacks would make a huge difference.

Smith is the sort of footballer who can transform any team he plays for and Barrett would no doubt be phenomenal in the abbreviated game where his pace and decision-making would combine in sparkling fashion.

Smith was keen but only after the Super Rugby season with the Highlanders.

With one or both, New Zealand would have become a strong contender and Tietjens may feel those targeted have somewhat rashly rejected an Olympic gold medal. Because it's hard to believe, questions have been asked as to whether individuals were unduly influenced into making those decisions.

They weren't, says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who is irritated that a process he felt was transparent and collaborative is being portrayed as clandestine and self-interested.

The conditions placed on the process were agreed before the recruitment drive began, namely that restrictions would be placed on the number of players in one position that could be allowed to play sevens.

Tietjens would be able to select one of Cruden, Barrett or Colin Slade (had he not left for France) and one of Williams and Fekitoa as the All Blacks were losing Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Fekitoa couldn't commit anyway as he doesn't have a New Zealand passport and, with no certainty of gaining one, his decision was made for him.

In terms of others, Cruden and Barrett are competing for the No10 jersey for so long worn by Dan Carter, Dagg needs to recapture the form that saw him play 49 tests, Savea is battling fitness issues and Vito is heading offshore after the conclusion of Super Rugby.

"I find it ironic that we are being blamed for people wanting to do it but I can promise you that's not the case," says Hansen. "We have not sat down with anyone and said you can't play sevens because it will cost you the All Blacks jersey. It's just not the way we do things and it's not conducive to doing what's right for New Zealand rugby." Gregor Paul

- Herald on Sunday

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