Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gordon Tietjens - Sevens guru consumed by monster he created

Sir Gordon Tietjens elevated sevens rugby to new heights, only to see other countries clamber over New Zealand.  Picture / Photosport
Sir Gordon Tietjens elevated sevens rugby to new heights, only to see other countries clamber over New Zealand. Picture / Photosport

A stunning career deserved a better ending. Everyone is sure about that and a gold medal, or a medal of any shade, at the Rio Olympics would have been the right way for Sir Gordon Tietjens to have signed off as coach of the New Zealand men's sevens team.

His influence was colossal. Tietjens instilled in all those who came under his coaching an incredible work ethic, respect for discipline and true insight into what being fit really means. In his 22 years as coach, New Zealand won four Commonwealth Games gold medals, two Rugby World Cup sevens titles and 12 World Series titles.

And, while he can't be directly credited with bringing sevens to the Olympics, there's no doubt his passion for the abbreviated game, success and standing all played a huge role in putting it on the world map.

Ben Smith, who was part of the sevens team that won the Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2010, spoke with feeling and obvious respect for his former coach.

"Something I learned from him was that, when I trained with him, he always wanted to make sure you were really struggling and then he would test you," said Smith.

"You would put some fitness work in and then we might play a game and that is when you have to work the hardest - when you might be struggling a bit. You had to make decisions and you had to be places.

"Those kind of things were good lessons for fifteens and the amount of time and space you get in sevens helps, too."

How much Tietjens achieved and how good he has been for sevens cannot be ignored or dismissed. But equally, nor can all that he achieved and his reputation be used to ignore the fact that New Zealand failed spectacularly at the Olympics.

That was on back of an inconsistent and ultimately disappointing World Series, where they finished third.

It seemed, and the Olympics only supported this, that a number of nations flew past New Zealand on the home straight, as it were. That having ruled the sevens world for an age, New Zealand suddenly found that the likes of Fiji, South Africa, Great Britain and even Japan had advanced beyond them in nearly all technical, tactical and conditioning aspects.

In a sense, Tietjens became a victim of the monster he helped create. He built a team that more than did its part in winning sevensan Olympics place and, by doing that, he opened funding streams to all of New Zealand's challengers.

That's partly why, in the last two years, countries such as Kenya, United States and Scotland were able to win World Series tournaments.

The New Zealand Rugby Union's preferred way of dealing with catastrophe is to embark on painfully slow and overly detailed reviews that tend to miss the point.

In the case of the Olympics, there is little need to trawl through the ashes in the hope it will be enlightening, trying to find some glaring deficiency or omission that explains why the team came up short.

There is unlikely to be any magic formula or horrible fault in their current set-up. New Zealand's men's sevens programme was well-funded. The players are paid enough to be full time professionals and they were at all 10 World Series events.

They didn't lack for anything on the high performance front and there doesn't seem any grounds for anyone to be thinking about ripping up the current system and starting again.

What happened is that other teams improved and maybe New Zealand didn't evolve fast enough or dramatically enough to keep up.

Other teams were simply better - they could match New Zealand in terms of conditioning and were beyond them when it came to tactical awareness, micro skills, game plan and mental resilience.

Surely, no one needs a review to understand that sevens has become intensely competitive and the nature of it - with fewer players, rules and technical set-piece requirements - means that more countries, even those with limited rugby pedigree, can get good at it relatively easily and quickly.

"Like anything, I think they probably would have learned a few things from Rio and the Olympics," said Smith. "They will be looking to go into the World Series next year and take the learnings into that. I think the sevens game is changing quite a bit and a lot of international teams are putting a lot of emphasis on it and how they get a good sevens team going."

The only question thatdoes need to be answered is whether it was right to recruit players contracted to 15-a-side teams - men who were coming in purely for the chance of going to the Olympics?

Was that fair on the regular and permanently contracted sevens players - the men who qualified the team, only to be ousted because a few stars fancied the idea of going to Rio after the hard work of getting there had been done?

And, if that is the road everyone is happy to go down again, will they insist next time that players have to be available for at least two tournaments before the Olympics?

That demand meant Smith turned down the chance of going to Rio because as captain, he wanted to have a full campaign with the defending champion Highlanders.

That's it, ask those questions and leave it there. New Zealand had a great run of it for a long, long time and Tietjens has a legacy of which he should be proud.

He built a foundation from which his successor can work and has done the most important thing, leaving the team in better shape than he found it.

High points

A trophy cabinet like no other...

Twelve world series titles, four Commonwealth Games gold medals, two sevens World Cups...exceptional.

The legacy...

Tietjens won't be forgotten, that's for sure. Very few international coaches last more than two decades as he has done, or get knighted. His name will be synonymous with a game that will almost certainly grow and grow thanks to Olympics inclusion - and he played his part in getting it there. Who knows: one day it may overtake 15s internationally.

Life with the stars...

All Black Eric Rush was re-invented as a sevens superstar and was Tietjens irreplaceable right hand man...other names to grace the team included Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu, Joe Rokocoko, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and quite a few more.

Low points

1. The 2016 Olympics, obviously

Rugby finally made it to the stage Tietjens coveted, and his team absolutely bombed. Not even a medal...and the signs hadn't been good for some time. The rest of the world had caught up and even overtaken the old master, and he lacked fresh thinking to do anything about it.

2. Wellington sevens...the early years

It took four attempts to win the home prize, that first win coming in 2003. New Zealand lost to the wonderful Fijians in the inaugural 2000 final, when fans poured into the new Westpac Stadium to watch a squad which included Jonah Lomu and Christina Cullen. Tietjens' side didn't even make the 2001 and 2002 finals.

3. Star struck

Tietjens lost access to his 15s stars and rising stars, who he saw as essential to success. His sevens team was once considered a key path to uncovering exceptional 15s talent. By the end, it was a side show largely unconnected to the All Blacks. 'Oh for another Eric Rush to translate my schemes into success' you imagined he might have thought now and then.

- NZ Herald

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