Sir Gordon Tietjens picks his first New Zealand Sevens squad for the 2015/16 season today with the ultimate prize an Olympic Gold Medal. We look at the coach and his team and ask why didn’t more big name players commit to his cause?
The story, apocryphal maybe, goes that when Sir Gordon Tietjens first became coach of the New Zealand Sevens team in 1994, he and the selectors were at odds over several names and neither side could find a way through the impasse.
Tietjens, keen to ensure the team was his from the start, and adamant that if he was to coach them then he should also be picking them, took the selectors’ list to the board chairman and switched it for his own. When the team was read out it was the team on his list. The selectors were apoplectic, but Tietjens had the team he wanted.
That rat cunning has served the coach well over the last 21 years. He is renowned for his selection ability, and for good reason: he is almost comically handicapped by New Zealand player priorities. That has meant he has had to hunt for talent in places other coaches – those in the fifteens game – rarely venture. Super Rugby players have been off-limits for years, as have New Zealand under-20 squad members. All up, each and every year, that’s around 200 rugby players Tietjens is not allowed to select.
Even this season – in which the New Zealand Sevens team will attempt to win an Olympic gold medal, a major priority for New Zealand Rugby – just two current All Blacks, Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams, have declared themselves available for selection. The rest have opted for another season of Super Rugby and the chance to play a three-test series for the All Blacks against Wales in June.
That seems odd, given New Zealand Rugby’s own strategic plan was based around winning the Rugby World Cup and two Olympic gold medals. The World Cup is in the cabinet, but now it seems the same level of desire does not apply (in the men’s game at least) to Rio.
In some ways it is also understandable. Sevens is a tough grind. Former players share a bond not too dissimilar to that between battle survivors. Humour in the horror and all that jazz. The sort of training required is not for everyone.
There is also intense competition for contracts at Super Rugby level – a much more sustainable and financially rewarding career path for players. They’re also unlikely to want to give another player a season-long opportunity, especially in the final year of an existing contract or looking to renew in the following season.
Then there is the All Blacks quandary: with so many veterans having hung up the boots, there is a sense that either by coercion or by straight up self-preservation, players who may have been keen on joining the sevens programme for a tilt at a gold medal came to the conclusion that fighting for a starting spot on Steve Hansen’s roster was a more desirable quest.
As always, there are two sides to this story. One source close to New Zealand Rugby’s process of setting the selection parameters for this year’s Sevens says there was “genuine surprise” that more players did not throw their name into the selection hat, especially given every step was taken to ensure players weren’t financially compromised in the event they committed to the sevens programme.
However, one high profile player spoken to says there was, in fact, plenty of enthusiasm from a number of All Blacks and Super Rugby players – including Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, and Beauden Barrett – but each of them was, in one way or another, dissuaded from pursuing the Olympics campaign.
For his part, Tietjens won’t confirm just who he approached. If he is frustrated by the existing dynamic or by the ultimate lack of support from certain quarters, he doesn’t let on.
“It is what it is,” he says. “I want guys who want to give it their hearts and their souls. I know a lot of players were torn to make a decision but the guys I do have are all one hundred per cent in, and this is what the game is all about – being conditioned, being committed and giving it everything you have.”
Knighted for services to athlete cruelty, Tietjens has just spent the last few days watching a squad of 18 players push themselves to vomiting point on his eponymous field at Blake Park in Mount Maunganui.
Not that he would have much sympathy for any player who suddenly developed a case of retroperistalsis. This is a coach who rather infamously once paid a visit to a player who had been admitted to hospital after a fitness training session and, upon seeing that player hooked up to an IV drip for severe dehydration, began giggling. Right in his face.
To make matters worse, he then inquired as to whether the poor young lad could be discharged from the ward immediately – he still needed to see him play an actual game before he could select him in his New Zealand side.
Let’s be very clear about this: completely fucking yourself over in training does not guarantee you’ll impress the most successful sevens coach in history.
He was, however, impressed with the training results this week. On Monday he had his squad run a beep test – an agonising and pitiless examination of an athlete’s ability to take in oxygen while stifling the urge to throw up. The results were better than expected. The worst ran 13/2 and the best, veteran Tim Mikkelson, returned a 15/6 mark. To put that in perspective, Mikkelson ran a total of three kilometres comprised of 150 20-metre shuttle sprints in a shade over 15 minutes.
And then they ran a skills session. And then they came back the next day and went harder still. That’s what you do on Sir Gordon Tietjens Field at Blake Park, Mount Maunganui. That, and everything you can do to convince a man who has been eyeing up an Olympic campaign since the day rugby’s reintroduction was announced that you are the guy he needs in his team.
Some years back, Tietjens had one of his squads play a full pace simulation game on this very field. It lasted two hours. When one of the players asked the coach what he called that particular drill, he said he had no idea. The team came up with their own name for it. They called it ‘death’.
“Training has got to hurt,” he says. “That is one thing that has never changed in all the years I have been doing this.”
With 16 players already under contract, the National Sevens in January will be the final proving ground for those wishing to make it onto the Sevens World Series roster, and to push for an Olympic spot. There will be members of the current squad – men who have busted their asses and damn near broken themselves physically and mentally as sevens specialists – who will miss out as a result of the inclusion of the likes of Akira and Reiko Ioane, Ardie Savea and the aforementioned Messam and Williams. That is the reality of this kind of life, and this kind of quest.
Gordon Tietjens has never been unfaithful to the mistress of victory, which means he has made plenty of hard selection calls before. But this year shapes as being one of the toughest of his tenure given his desire to support the current squad, and his need for an injection of game breaking talent from outside the tent.
“All I have ever asked is that they give it their all,” he says. “I know there will be disruption with guys already contracted and others coming from outside that group but I genuinely believe those guys already in the team have the experience and the knowledge so they are a step ahead in many ways.”
He may be hellbent on winning but there is another side to Tietjens: he can be deeply loyal to his veterans. He once told his long-time captain and collaborator, Eric Rush, that he could never drop him and that he would have to rely on Rush telling him when he was no longer capable. Rush called him the next day to tender his resignation. Tietjens refused it, and instead told him he needed him for one more tournament.
That was more than a decade ago, but there are echoes of that kind of coach-captain relationship in the current situation of DJ Forbes who this year decided to step down as the team’s leader.
“He told me he didn’t just want to make the team because he was captain,” says Tietjens. “He wanted to make it as a player.
“That was a very big decision for DJ to make but it was the right decision. I have never seen the guy so relaxed and focussed on making the squad and getting to the Olympics.”
Given Forbes’ experience in the game (he was first selected for the New Zealand side in 2006) and Tietjens’ genuine belief that the fitness levels and conditioning required for sevens are totally different to the fifteens programme, Tietjens will give him every opportunity to prove that his 32-year old body is still up to the challenge. A betting man would wager Forbes will be at his best for Rio.
That still leaves the question of how – and when – Tietjens slots his outsiders into the squad. Some are contracted to Super Rugby and only available for a handful of tournaments, while others are fully contracted to sevens but will at some stage have to be rotated to make room for the Olympics interlopers.
“My players know how hard this year is going to be and they know that they just have to keep putting their hand up for selection,” he says.
“We have to give guys opportunities but we have to win tournaments as well. Our main objective is the Olympics and with that I need to find out who’s up for it so I can pick the best guys.”
In Scott Curry Tietjens has a new captain who has grown into one of the dominant forces in the game. Tall, powerful and with a bottomless gas tank that allows him to play through all kinds of pain, Curry’s leadership shapes as crucial in maintaining results and team harmony. Add to that the likes of Mikkelson (a former Sevens World Player of the Year), Waikato speedster Joe Webber, veteran Sherwin Stowers and a host of other ‘specialists’ and the nucleus of Tietjens’ side looks good.
“The style I am looking to play is a direct style and to be superb around the contact areas and that will come together even more so when you have others like Ioane and Savea and SBW and Messam,” says Tietjens.
“If we can accelerate those areas then the number of defenders these guys will attract will mean we will have chances.”
That much seems a given. But on the subject of chances, questions still remain: Why wouldn’t more of New Zealand’s rugby stars want the chance to become an Olympian? And if, in fact, they did, what does their decision to ultimately turn that chance down say about the game’s real priorities?