Whilst New Zealand rugby fans are in euphoria at the moment, with their beloved All Blacks seemingly untouchable in the international arena and now on a world record run of consecutive victories, the sevens team should be proving to be a huge disappointment to everyone in the country.
Even though the All Blacks sevens mens squad for the Olympics included the likes of Sonny Bill Williams – who sadly had to drop out in the early stages of tournament due to injury – one of the pre-event favourites finished a lowly fifth, failing to make the podium.
Subsequently, long-serving coach Sir Gordon Tietjens resigned, bringing an end to a 22-year association with the NZRU and its sevens team. In that time Tietjens won 12 World Series titles, two World Cup sevens titles and four Commonwealth golds.
One has to ask why a man who is so synonymous with sevens in his own country decided now was the time to step down after such a glorious coaching career.
The NZRU were not keen to lose him, and according to the NZ Herald, they have done as much as possible to prevent Tietjens from taking up his new post with Samoa (via NZ Herald):
“I am still on contract to New Zealand Rugby and it runs through December, up to January. I guess you could say I am on gardening leave. I got a letter telling me about my contractual obligations.”
So why then did Tietjens step down? Although he had previously informed the NZRU that he would be retiring, the legendary coach has almost immediately stepped back onto the sevens circuit with a rival.
Have a read of Marc Hinton’s wonderfully written piece on Tietjens. There were numerous factors including injuries and mistakes made in selection, but most crucially a lack of support from New Zealand Rugby as a whole.
Players like Ardie Savea pulled out of the programme to integrate fifteens stars and moves like this suggested all was not well.
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From an outsider’s perspective, New Zealand seem to get everything so right all of the time and the rest of the world so frustratingly wrong. However, the NZRU and Tietjens were not working in sync when planning for the Olympics – an event that in many ways should have been the coach’s swan song and if there was any justice in the world, he’d have a gold medal around his neck right now.
Yet losses to minnows Japan and a hastily cobbled together Great Britain side show the All Blacks Sevens team was completely out of sorts in the showpiece event of the sport.
To rebrand the team as the ‘All Blacks Sevens’ is to associate the side with one of the greatest symbols of sport, yet their performances in the Olympics couldn’t be further away from what we all expect of the ‘All Blacks’.
Now that Samoa has poached one of the greatest coaches in rugby, it is likely their side will go from failing to qualify for Rio to be at the top table of Sevens once more. Tietjens, a remarkably driven man, will not want to finish his career on such a low point. The next Olympics will be his own yard stick in terms of success, and with the natural talent at his disposal it’s possible Samoa could be the genuine dark horses in Tokyo.
Like Tietjens, New Zealand Rugby has been praised for its search not just for success but perfectionism. Not just the number of victories, but the style and substance of those wins stand the All Blacks apart in a way that no other team does in sport.
The Olympics should anger all of the rugby-loving New Zealand public and the NZRU needs to ensure the mess that surrounded the build-up to Rio does not happen again in three years’ time. Without Tietjens, it’s just got a whole lot harder.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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