Young Kiwi fliers face toughest test

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 12:00am

New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens has warned his fast-on-the-draw young guns not to be carried away by their successful campaign at the Beijing Sevens on Sunday. The Kiwis arrived yesterday flushed with victory and on a high to defend their title at the Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Sevens this weekend.

But Tietjens stressed that winning in Hong Kong would depend largely on how his newly acquired pace duo, teenage debutant wing Joe Rokocoko and exciting centre Anthony Tuitavake, handled the pressure.

'Hong Kong is all about pressure. It is a big difference playing in front of a couple of hundred people as they did in Beijing and playing in front of a crowd of 40,000. They will have to handle that pressure. It will be a huge ask of the youngsters,' Tietjens said yesterday.

Rokocoko, Tuitavake and Josh Blackie are three of the new faces in the 12-strong squad who won the Beijing Sevens. The Kiwis defeated the Chester Williams-coached South Africans 41-14 to win the Cup competition and bagged their third tournament victory in this year's IRB World Sevens Series. New Zealand won the opening two legs in Durban and Chile earlier this year.

After their successful start to this year's IRB series, the Kiwis went into a bit of a slump and failed to reach the finals in Argentina and Wellington, while losing to Australia in the Brisbane finals.

These setbacks prompted Tietjens to go in search of fresh blood - Rokocoko, Tuitavake and Blackie.

'We lacked express pace. After Wellington, I decided I had to go out and find some pace for the team. I was very pleased with the way they performed in Beijing. It was the first time they were playing in the New Zealand jersey at sevens and they all impressed me very much,' Tietjens commented.

New Zealand will be in the hunt for a hat-trick of titles, a feat they accomplished from 1994 to 1996. 'Obviously we are here to win. But I have not thought about a hat-trick. If it happens, it happens. Our goal is to win the World Sevens Series again. Hong Kong holds more points than other tournaments and winning here is crucial. Last year our victory here assisted us in retaining the world title,' Tietjens said.

Tietjens, who has been chiefly instrumental in New Zealand's run of successes in Hong Kong in recent years, said the team would miss Karl Te Nana who is unavailable due to Super 12 commitments with the Waikato Chiefs.

'Karl's absence is a huge loss as he is someone who cannot be replaced immediately. You can see that as he was the Player of the Tournament in the past two occasions. But this year we have got a lot of experience in the forwards with Eric Rush back and others like Craig De Goldi, Damien Karauna, Jared Going and Amasio Valence all there. The younger players can lean on that experience.'

Veteran forward Rush returns after missing out last year. The 37-year-old Rush broke a leg at the 2001 World Cup in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and missed the entire IRB series last year. Fully recovered, he is now back in charge.

Despite winning easily in Beijing, Tietjens predicted this weekend's tournament would be closely fought. 'Anyone of six or seven teams can win,' he said.

This is supported by the fact that apart from New Zealand, Fiji, Australia and South Africa have also tasted victory in the series this year. Tietjens expects Argentina and Samoa to also be in with a shouting chance.

'We beat South Africa quite comprehensively in the final. But it was our day. It might be Fiji's turn this week. On any given day, any team can win at sevens,' he added.

As always, the Kiwis stole a march on the rest of the field by being the first team to arrive in Hong Kong. Most of the other leading contenders will arrive from Beijing today.