irbsevens.com and James Mortimer 30.Dec.2012Getty Images
Late in 2011 all of New Zealand was popping champagne corks as the All Blacks won the country's first Rugby World Cup title in 25 years. Just six months later there was more cause for celebration with yet another IRB Sevens Series captured.
Such was the scrutiny and anticipation around the World Cup win in 2011 that the levels of elation and relief almost transcended sport in New Zealand. By contrast, such is the weight of expectation around Gordon Tietjens' Sevens side that news of another success received far more muted applause, but their feats in the Olympic form of the game should be admired in much the same way.
Across the nine rounds of the 2011/12 HSBC Sevens World Series no fewer than five nations won Cup titles, underlining just how competitive and global the international Sevens game has become. Indeed even on the final day of the season, while the Kiwis lifted the Series trophy, they were denied the Cup final appearance they craved by their closest challengers Fiji.
And yet overall the men in black – now officially to be referred to as ‘Sevens All Blacks’ - still came out on top, beating off the stiff challenge of the Fijians as well as England, Samoa and Australia, each of whom won Cup titles during the season, and the likes of South Africa, Argentina, Wales and many others.
Six Cup final appearances out of nine and three Cup titles bear testament to New Zealand’s potent blend of talent, work ethic, mental strength and physical toughness that is still unparalleled in the Game’s abbreviated form. In short, they are still the benchmark.
"It's not about one person in our side, it's not about relying on those players with the X-factor. I have a favourite saying and that is 'whoever plays will do the job',” said Gordon Tietjens, who has been in charge of the country’s men’s Sevens programme since 1994 and intends to bow out only after the sport’s first Olympic Games in 2016.
"We've probably got the fittest rugby players in New Zealand. They work harder than any rugby player in New Zealand and that unifies them. My training sessions are probably harder than any game they'll ever play and that's a real key to that unity as it brings us close.
"We enjoy ourselves but the jersey means everything and it's the fear of losing that is instilled into them as well.
“I test them every time that they come into camp but, more importantly, they need to work hard in their own environments so that when they come to camp they're where they need to be. That work ethic and togetherness creates a culture that's second to none."
And a strong culture is paramount when you’re on the road as long as they are. It’s easy to forget that international Sevens players are now Rugby’s most prolific tourists. In the 2011/12 season they chalked up countless airmiles en route to nine global destinations across five continents, and that itinerary is set to lenghten further to 10 rounds in six continents for 2012/13. Never has the term ‘World Series’ seemed more appropriate.
Back in 2006, Fiji became the first country to take the World Series crown from New Zealand and in 2009 and 2010 South Africa and Samoa followed suit by winning respective Series titles, but Tietjens and his various sides have otherwise held sway over the 13 years.
Such is his status in the game that it came as no great surprise when, on the night of the most recent HSBC Sevens World Series finale, the IRB honoured Tietjens by inducting him into the IRB Hall of Fame, shining light on his undeniable and incomparable achievements to date: Having not missed a single tournament since the inception of the Series back in 1999, Tietjens and his players have won 10 World Series titles. Under his watch, Hew Zealand has also won a Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2001 and all four Commonwealth Games gold medals contested. No fewer than 37 All Blacks have graduated from his Sevens regime, most of whom pay generous tribute to their time in his ‘care’.
On receiving his Hall of Fame cap at Twickenham Stadium, an emotional Tietjens was quick to return the compliment.
"It's just really humbling and quite special really. I'm shocked to be recognised for my contribution to Sevens Rugby. I can only thank the players that have been a big part of my life, the players that have contributed to the successes in the game that I have had,” he said.
"In the game of Sevens you've got to be mentally very, very strong. There are a lot of players out there who are gifted, talented but haven't got the work ethic and have gone away from Sevens because it's too tough for them. But there are those players who are mentally tough, incredibly fit and they are the ones who want to make it. And often they are also the ones who will go on and also become All Blacks."
Above all, it is clear that Tietjens still has a passion for the game of Rugby Sevens, even after 18 years as his country's head Sevens coach. His eyes still twinkle at the mention of certain tournaments, finals or players, or when asked about his latest scouting success.
"I love watching players in space expressing themselves. I remember back to Christian Cullen playing for me on a Sevens pitch, and he went on to become a wonderful All Black of course, but to see the step, the acceleration, the vision, the ball skills off both hands, everything you'd expect from a rugby player he could express in the game of Sevens.
"Christian was probably the most outstanding talent I saw in all that time. Eighteen tries in Hong Kong in his second year was incredible. Jonah (Lomu) nobody could match for the X-factor to win big tournaments and every time he went from the Sevens team to play for the All Blacks he played so well, because he was so fit."
Ironically, it is that same enthusiasm and dedication that has also helped pave the way for a new generation of Sevens specialist coaches, whose job it is to make Tietjens’ life increasingly difficult.
Across the Tasman former dual-code international Michael O’Connor is putting his talent for player identification and coaching to good use. Two seasons ago nine of his players graduated to Super Rugby contracts and, more recently, he enjoyed Cup success with another new crop of youngsters in Tokyo. In Samoa, Stephen Betham won the World Series in 2010 and has since been given the Manu Samoa top job, passing on the Sevens reins to his former Manager, Faamoni Lalomilo.
Further afield, Paul Treu was the first coach to instigate a full time centrally-contracted national Sevens squad in South Africa. Based in Stellenbosch, the team’s facilities would be the envy of many an Olympic athlete and his set-up has acted as a blue-print for the other countries.
In Europe, England’s head coach Ben Ryan was the first to follow Treu’s lead and now has a full time squad of Sevens players, victorious in Dubai and building steadily towards Rio 2016, while Paul John led Wales to World Cup Sevens success in 2009 and is also quietly building a formidable unit.
And crucially now Sevens teams are also finding themselves welcomed for the first time by National Olympic Committees, as the sport enters its maiden Olympic cycle. This fact may just prove to spark the biggest sea change of all. The USA’s side now trains regularly out of USOC’s stunning Chula Vista facility just outside of San Diego, tapping into untold resources, while new core team Spain are also benefiting from access to superb Olympic facilities and infrastructure they might only have dreamt about a few years ago.
Arguably even more exciting is the attention now being heaped on the women’s game of Sevens. Scenting out ‘soft’ medals in both 2016 and 2020, National Olympic Committees are already investing heavily in women’s programmes in Canada, USA, Netherlands and China, while Brazil’s women’s Sevens team is the pride of a nation increasingly infatuated by rugby, albeit forever in love with soccer.
The women will have a brand new Series in 2012/13, while for the men the season ahead promises to be their toughest ever assignment: 10 rounds of energy-sapping Rugby Sevens and now 15 core teams set to compete in each and every tournament, up from 12 last year.
“I’ve said it many times over the past few seasons and I still don’t think people have ever properly believed me: there really are no easy matches anymore in the game of Sevens. And with 15 teams basically full time on the Series now it’s going to go up another notch,” said Tietjens.
“In years gone by I could maybe afford to rest a few of my top players for one or even two pool games, and still expect to top the group, or certainly proceed to the Cup quarter finals. For the past couple of years that really hasn’t been the case. Everyone knows about Samoa, Fiji and South Africa, all Series winners, and the likes of England who’ve done very well for a number of years now, and Australia who are now back to being the same formidable opponent that they were when the Series began.
“Most people also know that Kenya, Wales and Argentina can knock you over if you’re not at your best. But it’s the other teams who’ve also raised their level - teams like France who now have full time players, and Spain, Canada and Portugal, all of whom are now there at every event as the so-called fourth-ranked side in the pool.
“I can no longer rest my captain DJ Forbes against these sides, or a Tomasi Cama or Tim Mikkelson, and just expect to go out there and win with young, talented players. These are sides full of experience, players who’ve played in Rugby World Cups and in many Sevens tournaments, and who are also now being very well coached in the art of Sevens.
“We take our foot off the pedal in a pool match and we can easily lose that match. Knowing that has an effect in the short term because you’re asking so much more of your senior players so that element of fatigue can become a much bigger factor, but also in the longer term across an entire season. With more events now, it means we’re needing to build in more rest time and my players are also now reaching a stage where they are having to decide whether they can still come back to New Zealand, pack away the Sevens kit and go out and play big 15-a-side matches in our National Provincial Competition.
“I believe Sevens is taking off to such an extent, and has the potential to become such a major force in so many of these countries, that I really do think it’s at a tipping point. Players will soon have to decide: do I want to play 15s, or Sevens? In many ways 15s is the easy option and they can always go back to that afterwards, but for the sacrifices you make in Sevens you do now have that possibility of doing something that very few sportsmen and women achieve in their careers - go on to represent your country at an Olympic Games.
“That is incredibly enticing for me as a coach and I believe also for rugby players in New Zealand, and all over the world.
“That first Olympic cycle now starts for us and in lots of ways we have to be even better than we’ve been up to now because no country is going to take a backwards step, they’re only going to improve and the 2012/13 HSBC Sevens World Series will be the first step for us on that Road to Rio.”