England snub raises Sevens stakes
'Where is England?' That's the question New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens and the rest of the leading sides in the HSBC World Sevens Series were asking as the sentimental favourites fly under the radar in the build-up to the make-or-break fifth leg at Hong Kong Stadium this weekend.
England's hush-hush approach at this year's Cathay Pacific/Credit Suisse Hong Kong Sevens is worrying opponents and raising a few eyebrows. The first team to arrive in town - last Friday - England have been keeping a low profile. While the rest of the teams have been readily available for the media scrum, England apparently want to do all their talking on the field. If not quite top secret, their training schedule is not revealed like the rest of the 24 teams. They train at Sandy Bay in Pok Fu Lam, away from the madding crowd.
England mentor Ben Ryan has chosen to keep his team and himself away from the limelight, even shunning yesterday's pre-tournament media briefing, prompting Tietjens to take a dig at his rival's media-shy approach.
'Good question, where is England?' asked Tietjens, who later identified the Red Rose challenge as one of the most dangerous his side will face as they attempt to take a stranglehold on the series.
But England, who share top spot in the standings with New Zealand on 80 points, apparently want their lead-in to be hassle-free. Skipper Ben Gollings, who turned up for a photo shoot of all 24 captains with the world's largest rugby ball, gave credence to the theory the English don't want any distractions.
'Sorry, I'm not allowed to talk to the media,' Gollings said. The chance to find out how the series' all-time leading points-scorer was feeling was lost.
This is Ryan's fifth year in charge of England but under his tutelage they haven't tasted victory, and he is determined that will change on Sunday. The last of England's four Cup victories came in 2006 when Joe Lydon had hold of the tiller.
But with players being contracted for the first time to play sevens - a result of the sport being in the Olympics - England have a settled look about them which is a worry for their rivals, including nine-time Hong Kong Sevens champions New Zealand.
'They have the same team here which played at the Commonwealth Games last year and that experience will be hugely beneficial,' Tietjens said.
But you knew there was a 'but' coming, for Tietjens, the canny operator he is, wouldn't have wanted England to feel they had the title in the bag.
'But they will miss Damu [injured forward Isoa Damudamu], a huge blow to them,' Tietjens said. 'And it would be wrong to just focus on England for there are other huge dangers in the form of Fiji, Samoa, South Africa and even Australia.'
The coaches of all these sides were at the head table yesterday. But all the focus was on the man who was not - Ryan.
They may be flying under the radar but expect them to make a dramatic appearance tomorrow when they will most likely front up in their tequila sunrise strip - a heady concoction of colours - as they confront China in their opening pool game.
'England's the team which gets the most support in Hong Kong and this always makes it tougher,' Tietjens said. 'If we meet them, we will certainly give it our best shot, but I never look further than our first game, which is against South Korea.'
The only person who was able to shed some light on England was Hong Kong coach Dai Rees. Hong Kong had a hit-out against England last Sunday, and Rees was impressed.
'They have pace, size and strength. They are looking sharp,' Rees said.
All will be revealed soon. England expects, as does Ryan.