Has men’s sev­ens lost its mojo?

SPORTS TALK WITH JOSEPH ROMANOS

Auckland City Harbour News - - SPORT -

There must be in­creas­ing con- cern about the New Zealand men’s rugby sev­ens prospects for next year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Huri­ana Manuel’s New Zealand women’s team have been so dom­i­nant re­cently they are strong gold medal hopes.

They won the 2013 and 2014 world se­ries and were im­pres­sive in win­ning the first three tour­na­ments this year, in Dubai, Sao Paulo and At­lanta.

It’s a dif­fer­ent story with the men, how­ever.

New Zealand have long been the ma­jor force in men’s sev­ens.

Un­der su­per-coach Gor­don Ti­et­jens, they won 11 of the first 14 world se­ries, in­clud­ing the first six, and the first four Com­mon­wealth Games sev­ens gold medals.

But are they run­ning out of steam?

New Zealand were out­played in the 2014 Glas­gow Com­mon­wealth Games fi­nal by the faster, more ex­cit­ing South Africans.

In the 2015 cir­cuit, they are third be­hind South Africa and Fiji, hav­ing won just one (Welling­ton) of the seven tour­na­ments.

South Africa lead with 129 points. Fiji have 125, New Zealand 120 and Eng­land, who won in Ja­pan re­cently, 100.

Rugby fol­low­ers seem to feel ev­ery­thing will be OK next year be­cause Ti­et­jens will stack his squad with All Blacks.

But it’s doubt­ful he’ll pick too many.

The re­cent head­line-grab­bing an­nounce­ment that Kieran Read was for­go­ing his Olympic hopes to fo­cus on the All Blacks was laugh­able.

Ti­et­jens would not have picked Read, who is a great All Black No 8, but would be too big and slow for sev­ens.

In the early days, lum­ber­ing loose for­wards such as Alan Suther­land and Alex Wyl­lie played sev­ens for New Zealand. So, more re­cently, did Todd Black­ad­der.

None would make the cut in the mod­ern game, where a 110kg player is con­sid­ered ex­tremely heavy and there is huge em­pha­sis on speed.

Ti­et­jens’ team is cap­tained by vet­eran DJ Forbes, a Richie McCaw-type leader.

But around him, Ti­et­jens will want raw speed, ab­so­lute fit­ness and sev­eral play­ers with ex­cep­tional leap­ing abil­ity – to win all-im­por­tant pos­ses­sion from kick-offs.

Of cur­rent All Blacks, Ardie Savea, Beau­den Bar­rett, Sonny Bill Wil­liams and Ben Smith are strong can­di­dates for the Olympic team.

Ju­lian Savea must also rate a chance.

Ti­et­jens cer­tainly has the job ahead of him.

In Hong Kong this month, New Zealand were run­ners-up to Fiji, hav­ing beaten Samoa 15-14 in the semi-fi­nal.

The sig­nif­i­cant re­sult, how­ever, was their 24-24 draw with Por­tu­gal, who missed a kick to win the match.

Por­tu­gal are 14th among the core 15 teams that con­test ev­ery tour­na­ment on the sev­ens cir­cuit.

In Ja­pan the fol­low­ing week, New Zealand were beaten 19-15 by Canada in the quar­ter-fi­nal. Canada are ranked 11th this sea­son.

Such re­sults would have been un­think­able a few years ago, but show how much tighter men’s sev­ens has be­come.

The game has evolved tremen­dously and, es­pe­cially with the lure of an Olympics, teams like Kenya, the United States, Ar­gentina and even Por­tu­gal are gen­uine fac­tors.

The Olympic fields – men and women – will be made up of 12 teams, with hosts Brazil guar­an­teed a spot.

Four men’s teams qual­ify au­to­mat­i­cally from the 2015 world cir­cuit, so New Zealand at least seems as­sured of en­try.

As far as their Olympic hopes go, that’s about all that is as­sured at this point.

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