Hong Kong Sevens

Golden Gordon's happy return

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am

Tietjens seeks 51st tournament title as he brings New Zealand back to the place where he first tasted glory in 1994

If it was marriage, then Gordon Tietjens would have been celebrating his golden anniversary. But it wasn't wedded bliss Tietjens enjoyed when he was reminded, on the rugby field, that he had reached the big milestone of Five-O - winning 50 tournaments with his cherished New Zealand sevens squad.

The canny Kiwi, widely regarded as the best mind in the abbreviated form of the game, will arrive in town today with the men in black to mount another challenge at winning the world's most famous sevens tournament - the Cathay Pacific/Credit Suisse Hong Kong Sevens.

Tietjens will be gunning for his 51st sevens title with New Zealand next Sunday at the Hong Kong Stadium. He reached his half-century of tournament victories last December in George when hosts South Africa lost a pulsating final in the second leg of the IRB Sevens. And as fate would have it, the landmark was achieved on the day he turned 50.

'That was a great birthday present. Winning a 50th tournament as coach is most satisfying. I hope I don't have to wait until I turn 51 to win my next tournament,' laughed Tietjens. 'It would be just perfect if Hong Kong is the 51st.'

It won't be easy, for gone are the days when either New Zealand or Fiji were expected to turn up and battle for the prize. With the advent of the IRB Sevens series in 1999, Tietjens is the first to admit any number of teams can win. As evidence, the four previous legs of the season have had different winners.

'There are five or six teams who can win this year - the four previous winners this season - South Africa, Samoa, Fiji and us - and of course England, who will be aiming for their fifth straight Hong Kong title,' Tietjens said.

'But now I've hit 50 I am looking for the next one. Once you hit a mark like this you really want to keep going, and nothing would please me more than winning the next one in Hong Kong for it was here that it all started,' Tietjens said.

It has been a long, and sometimes hard, road that Tietjens has travelled over the years since first taking the helm of New Zealand's sevens squad in 1994, at the Hong Kong Sevens, which was his win number one.

'That was my first tournament in charge. In those days we didn't have a series like we do now. The Hong Kong Sevens was the only major tournament around so it was fantastic to come here for the first time as coach and win it,' he reminisced.

Tietjens' first visit was in 1983 as a player in the famous all black colours with New Zealand being represented for the first time. The Kiwis lost to Samoa in the quarter-finals of the Cup competition, which was won by a David Campese-inspired Australia.

But his real love affair blossomed only from 1994 as he brought a succession of New Zealand teams, unveiling such prodigious young talents such as Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen, while at the same time winning five of New Zealand's eight Cup titles.

'It is highly satisfying to see young players come here and make their mark, and then go on to represent the All Blacks. Over the years I have always felt for the players. We have won lots of tournaments but the players have never really been given the praise they deserve. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to win,' Tietjens added. Given New Zealand's astonishing record in Hong Kong and their domination of the IRB Sevens (Fiji ended their streak last year of six successive overall titles), the Kiwis have not won in Hong Kong since 2001. It's something which Tietjens hopes can be addressed next Sunday.

'Like I said, it is harder now. More unions are putting in more resources to sevens rugby these days. And at a big tournament like Hong Kong, the pressures are more and a lot of things can affect a result.

'For instance injury can cost you a lot. As a coach, I pray that we can get through the early matches and the quarter-finals without an injury. Everything can change if you lose a couple of players,' he added.

Tietjens pointed out that the emergence of England as a force was also a reason behind New Zealand's drought. England have won the last four Hong Kong titles - 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006. The 2005 tournament was a World Cup event, won by Fiji.

While winning in Hong Kong is always special, Tietjens revealed the most memorable win of his 50 titles was the Commonwealth Games gold medal last year in Melbourne.

'The three gold medals New Zealand have won at the past three Commonwealth Games have been special, particularly last year when we won in front of 80,000 fans. But winning in Hong Kong is special, too. I will always remember it as being the place where I won my first tournament as a coach,' he added.

In charge of the national sevens squad for the 14th straight year, Tietjens' contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union will end in October. He says it will then be time to step down and seek a fresh challenge - perhaps in charge of the Hong Kong team.