sevens rugby was introduced at the Commonwealth Games
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Since sevens rugby was introduced at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, only one team has ever won gold: New Zealand.
The mastermind behind those four gold medals, coach Gordon Tietjens, will again be at the helm when the New Zealand Sevens look to make it five in a row at the 2014 Games beginning this week in Glasgow.
Much as it has in 15-to-a-team rugby, New Zealand has dominated the shorter, faster version of the game. It is the current sevens world champion, having won the World Cup in Russia in 2013, and in May it wrapped up its 12th HSBC World Series title in 15 years.
But participating in the Commonwealth Games remains particularly special to Tietjens, or Titch as he is known in rugby circles. In four Games — in Kuala Lumpur, Manchester, Melbourne and New Delhi — New Zealand has not lost a single match.
“You’re not just representing rugby players, you’re representing all the other New Zealand sporting teams as well,” Tietjens said. “That’s probably a bit of extra pressure, which makes it a different tournament and makes it quite a special tournament.”
“One of the real motivating factors to keep winning is not being that team that suffers their first loss at a Commonwealth Games,” he added. “You’ve got to set high standards and go out and not so much defend that title but to win it again.”
New Zealand’s captain, DJ Forbes, said the team’s preparations remained largely the same regardless of whether it was a World Series game, a World Cup or Commonwealth Games tournament.
“But Titch might be a bit more grumpy and demanding about things with a Commonwealth Games medal up for grabs,” joked Forbes, who is one of three players on the team who competed in New Delhi four years ago.
Tietjens attributes his team’s success to hard work — his training sessions are famously tough — and a strict diet.
“I work them very, very hard and I don’t compromise a lot as a coach,” he said. “Every training session we have is harder than any game they’ll play. There are games when you’ve got to pull out everything to win, whether it be a final or even a pool game, so you’ve got to go in with the conditioning.”
As might be expected in a rugby-mad country, there is also a deep pool of talent for the coach to call upon.
Previously, Tietjens has turned to All Blacks to help bolster his sevens squads. In 1998, Jonah Lomu was on the team that won gold in Kuala Lumpur. In 2010, the team included Ben Smith, Liam Messam and Hosea Gear. For Glasgow, though, there are no All Blacks, as Tietjens has stuck largely with the full-time sevens players that won the 2013 World Cup and recent World Series.
Since the announcement in 2009 that sevens rugby would be included in the Olympics starting in 2016, more money and time have been invested in the sport in established rugby-playing countries, as well as in nations that have not traditionally embraced the 15-man game.
Countries are opting to contract sevens players full-time, and there is a greater emphasis being placed on areas such as analysis, nutrition and strength and conditioning. The margins between winning and losing have become much smaller in the sport.
The English player Dan Norton used to split his time, playing 15-man rugby for his Bristol club and sevens for England. He, along with all his England teammates, are now full-time sevens players.
“In 15s, you’re looking to be bigger, more powerful and to carry a bit more weight,” said Norton, who missed out on a medal in 2010 when England lost to South Africa in the bronze-medal match in New Delhi. “But in sevens it’s a lot more high-intensity sprints and a lot more repeat fitness really.”
“The main thing over the last two or three years is that we’ve been able to spend a lot more time doing specific team plays,” he added. “We spend a lot more time working on the smaller margins.”
As a result of the general increase in funding, the sport as a whole has become more competitive. Canada, for example, reached its first final in the penultimate tournament of the World Series in May.
“Teams are taking it a lot more seriously,” Norton said. “You can’t underestimate any teams anymore.”
England and Australia, which won silver in 2010, are two of New Zealand’s main rivals in Glasgow. They have been drawn in pool D, along with two minnows, Sri Lanka and Uganda.
New Zealand and Canada are in pool A, with Scotland, an established World Series team and the host nation, and Barbados. South Africa and Kenya — both core teams in the World Series — are in group B, with the less-established Cook Islands and Trinidad & Tobago teams.
The World Series teams Samoa and Wales and the minor nations Papua New Guinea and Malaysia are in pool C.
Fiji, one of the top teams in the sport, will not be in Glasgow, as the military-run country was readmitted to the Commonwealth Games too late for the sevens team to be included.
The Games will be played at Ibrox Stadium, home of the Glasgow Rangers soccer team, on Saturday and Sunday. Pool matches will be played on the first day, with knockout rounds the next day.
Pool A looks to be the most competitive and is likely to come down to a battle between Canada and Scotland to see who joins New Zealand in the quarterfinals. Australia, England, Kenya, Samoa, South Africa and Wales should also progress to the last eight.
Australia’s sevens program has undergone an overhaul since the 2010 Games, and the captain, Ed Jenkins, hopes that can help the team finish first in Glasgow.
Winning the silver medal in 2010 resulted in many of the players being snapped up by Australian Super Rugby franchises, which decimated the sevens team.
Players are now on two-year, full-time contracts and all live and train in Sydney. They also have a new coach, Geraint John, who until recently was the coach of Canada.
Jenkins said he had no regrets about sticking with sevens. “To be participating in another Commonwealth Games is a huge milestone,” he said, “and with another Sevens World Cup under my belt and the big carrot of the Olympics, which is coming up soon, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.”
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