BACK IN BUSINESS
THE TATTOO ON Karl Te Nana's back moves in mesmerising waves as he flexes his arms in the morning sunlight during training at Police Boundary Street. The shadows dance off the broad sweep of his shoulders, highlighting the Maori Moko.
Te Nana decided last year he needed a Moko - or tattoo - relating his warrior deeds on the field. He says fellow-Maoris looking at his tattoo could read in one glance the story of his life. 'It tells my whole life. Basically how I travelled the world, played rugby and about my family,' says Te Nana proudly. 'I related my life to this guy at a Maori festival and he tattooed it on my back. It took three hours to do.'
New Zealand's sevens gladiator is back once more - after missing last year's Hong Kong Sevens - this time armed with his ferocious looking tattoo. But, sadly, his legion of female fans will not be able to get a glimpse of the six sharks and the rising sun on his back. That is unless New Zealand win the Cup final on Sunday.
'I didn't just want to tattoo any part of my body. It had to be private. It is a personal thing. It was not done to show off,' says Te Nana. But he promises that if the Kiwis win back the Cup - currently in England's hold - the tattoo will be unveiled during the celebratory haka.
A two-time Player of the Tournament (he won in 2000 and 2001 and is the only player apart from Fiji's Waisale Serevi to win in successive years), Te Nana is determined to lead New Zealand to Cup glory. 'Last year I missed out because I was playing Super 12 rugby for the Chiefs. It is great to be back in Hong Kong. This is the best stop on the tour and it is always special to win the Hong Kong Sevens,' says Te Nana, who will be appearing in his sixth Hong Kong Sevens.
A fleet-footed back in 15-a-side rugby, Te Nana plays as a forward in the abbreviated version. His versatility aligned to his experience will boost New Zealand as they seek their ninth Hong Kong Sevens title.
Coach Gordon Tietjens is just about salivating at the prospect of Te Nana playing once again in the company of the mercurial Eric Rush, captain of the class of 2003. The last time the two appeared together at the Hong Kong Stadium was back in 2000. In 2001, Rush was missing due to a broken leg while Super 12 duty kept Te Nana out last year.
'It is just great to have them both available again. The years of experience they both bring is something invaluable. They have both captained New Zealand and know what is needed to handle the extra pressures of the Hong Kong tournament,' said Tietjens.
In fact, this New Zealand team boast four players who have captained the side over the past decade - Rush is the most venerated leader but, in his absence, Te Nana, Craig de Goldi and Amasio Valence have all stepped into the helmsman's role. 'I had a back injury last year and did not make it into the Super 12 this season. But I'm fighting fit again,' says Te Nana.
With Te Nana, Rush and De Goldi (who is coming back from an injury which kept him out for the past 12 months) back in the fray, New Zealand will field one of their most experienced lineups in recent years. The only new faces to Hong Kong are Charles Baxter, Roy Kinikinilau, Liam Messam and Nathaniel Walker. The rest have all figured in the past few years at the Hong Kong Stadium. Even the new boys are not green. They have all played prominent roles in this year's IRB Sevens.
Tietjens' tip is to watch out for big and mobile forward Messam. The Bay of Plenty player turned 19 on Tuesday and has already caught the eye of Tietjens with some sparkling performances, especially at the Wellington Sevens. 'He is one for the future,' nods Tietjens knowingly, the man who blooded players like Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen in the past. Maybe another star will be born for New Zealand this weekend.
Skipper Rush wholeheartedly agrees with his coach. 'Yes he is good. And to think that he was only three years old when I first played at the Hong Kong Sevens,' grins Rush. At 38, Rush is twice Messam's age. 'Every time I look at him, it is a constant reminder how old I am,' laughs Rush.
But the legendary sevens star is still playing superbly. Appearing for the 15th time (his first appearance was in 1988 and he has missed only one tournament since) Rush is looking forward to what might be his last hurrah.
Although his teammates rib Rush about his age at every opportunity, they are all eager to give him a send-off worthy of a great champion. 'I'm 27, 11 years younger than Rushie,' says Te Nana gleefully. The tattoo dancing on his shoulders seems to stress his comparable youthfulness.
Apart from his tattoo, the lithe and lethal sevens forward also sports a new hairdo. Streaks of blond highlights will make him stand out more in the crowd. The new-look hairstyle is a measure of support for his brother-in-law Peter Williams, a New Zealand boxer, who was seriously injured in a national bout last year.
'He had long hair. So I decided to grow my hair and highlight it for him. I went and saw him before I came over to Hong Kong and he is in my prayers all the time,' says Te Nana, showing a glimpse of his compassionate side.
Opponents, however, cannot expect as much from him. With his tattoo under wraps - for the moment at least - the gladiator is back in his favourite arena. The lions had better watch out.