Olympic sevens hopes shaky
There must be increasing concern 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.
On 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, and 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 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.
Coach Gordon Tietjens and captain DJ Forbes were all smiles after winning the London Sevens last year. Will they be smiling after the Rio de Janeiro Olympics?