Paul Lewis: NZ Rugby tied one arm behind Tietjens' back

By Paul Lewis

New Samoan sevens head coach Gordon Tietjens. Photo /
New Samoan sevens head coach Gordon Tietjens. Photo /

It won't take long before Sir Gordon Tietjens' Samoan sevens beat New Zealand, especially if his replacement at the helm of New Zealand sevens is as handicapped as Tietjens was.

The question lingering over the end of the reign of the great Titch - yes, 'great', that overworked word but entirely appropriate for Tietjens - is whether New Zealand Rugby, having played a role in his departure, will maintain the same stance with his successor.

Here's Tietjens on Radio Live weeks ago, when asked about the recruitment of leading All Blacks to the sevens Olympic campaign: "Seventy per cent of the players I had asked about came back as a yes but, within two or three weeks, a lot of those decisions were turned around and became a no."

He thought some of the players were influenced by other parties to change their decision. "You can always have speculation, you can have influence coming from different quarters, I don't know. A lot of those players were involved in Super Rugby at the time and a lot of them saw the opportunity to be part of the All Blacks.

And all I can do is speculate and say there was some undue pressure there and the players were torn and had to make a decision."

The real reason for failing to win gold in Rio was not Tietjens, in spite of trenchant criticism thrown his way, but New Zealand Rugby. Having made it sound as if a sevens gold medal was a priority, they set about demonstrating it wasn't.

Sonny Bill Williams was the only All Black to jump the sevens fence, although Liam Messam didn't make the cut. The likes of Kieran Read, Ben Smith, Julian and Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett and rising stars like Damian McKenzie and Toni Pulu were not there - and NZR kept feeding us the line key All Blacks preferred Super Rugby and the national team.

There was no compulsion for them to switch, no incentive. The simple political pressure of surrendering an All Blacks spot worked its subtle magic, although there was nothing subtle about Ardie Savea pulling out of the Olympics - followed closely by selection in the All Blacks.

NZR chief executive Steve Tew said he offered Ben Smith to Tietjens in June but Tietjens "didn't want him". Smith had said in 2015 he didn't want to play sevens in Olympic year.

I'm with Tietjens. I wouldn't want anyone who didn't want to be there, either. He has always said XVs players need extended time to bed into the sevens game by playing on the world circuit. It is not a matter of just turning up and switching on.

Tew can't have it both ways. You either assign All Blacks to play in the sevens - and make it worth their while - or you don't. I mean, if my employers wanted me to go to Britomart to count the pigeons every day, I'd not be best pleased but if it was an order, sweetened with a bonus for a job well done and with prospects for higher honours, I'd struggle to refuse. Coming up with a half-baked offering too late smacks of politics and the ability to say one thing while meaning another.

Tietjens was left in the same situation he has always been in - having to select a world-class sevens team with many world-class players denied him. We used to marvel at Titch winning world crowns time after time when about 200 first-choice rugby players were fenced off by the NZR priority system.

NZR had only to back words with actions; detail the right players in plenty of time for immersion in sevens and the world circuit. Instead, Tietjens could select Super Rugby players, but only if they played 10 weeks in that competition.

In Rio, the magic stopped. The rest of the world had caught up with New Zealand in terms of fitness and endurance; opponents' confidence and improved decision-making was evident. Some teams were ahead in one telling area: speed. The open spaces of sevens make that quality vital. South Africa, Australia, the United States, Britain and others have big populations and greater incidence of real speedsters.

New Zealand did not have express pace. Tietjens was forced into a different strategy - bigger players who could bust a tackle or offload. Speed is largely neutralised if an offload puts an attacker into a gap. He included one of the great offloaders, SBW, whose injury in that shock loss to Japan in the first game robbed the side of a linchpin.

But the key feature of that loss? Speed. Japan played the game at pace and waited for the big guys to tire - and they did. The heart seemed to melt in the New Zealand team. A narrow loss to eventual finalists Britain followed and the winningest team in sevens history was reduced to playing off for fifth. How easy then to point the bone at Tietjens under the mantle of "fresh thinking required".

Whoever takes over from Titch now has the same battle to fight. Here's hoping he doesn't have one hand tied behind his back, as his predecessor did.

And if NZR change their policy now, it will suggest strongly they tucked up Titch.

- Herald on Sunday

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