Rugby World Cup Sevens

Full steam ahead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am


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He is omnipresent, having been at all 100 tournaments since the IRB Sevens World Series began in December 1999. But Gordon Tietjens, is typically humble and refuses to dwell on the past. He prefers to look to the future.

The most successful coach in the history of world rugby is still hungry for more, despite being a sevens centenarian, and now looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics when rugby sevens makes its debut as a medal sport.

'I'm starting to show my age,' laughed Tietjens, 55, from Murrayfield in Scotland after the Kiwis were crowned HSBC Sevens World Series champions for another year, despite losing to Australia in the semi-finals.

The squad, captained by DJ Forbes, had already clinched the championship the week before at the London Sevens. It was the ninth time New Zealand have won the series, with only Fiji, South Africa and Samoa interrupting the world order.

'We won four tournaments, with the highlight being Hong Kong followed a week later by Adelaide. It is harder to win two tournaments on the trot these days. It was also satisfying that we reached the Cup semi-finals in every tournament,' he said.

'And we won the World Series in a year where Sevens is growing, it is a lot stronger now.'

Over the years, New Zealand's win record is unbelievable, so much so Tietjens has now given up keeping count.

'We have won maybe more than 60 tournaments. When you look back to Dubai in 1999, to go on and win nine of the 12 series is a credit to the players who have come through the Sevens system in New Zealand. It is really tough, but it is successful and rewarding.' Tietjens fondly remembers winning that first tournament in Dubai, four Commonwealth Games gold medals and a World Cup triumph in 2001, and it spurs him on with his sights now set on winning the first Olympic gold.

'It's been a long time and I never thought I would still be around for the 100th,' Tietjens said. 'But now the goal is the Olympics in 2016. The challenge is to hang in there. There is a real opportunity to win an Olympic medal.'

The game has undergone massive transformation and Tietjens has had to constantly reinvent the wheel so the men in black can remain dominant.

'In the beginning, it was just us and Fiji, but now it is so competitive and you get a number of teams, even those like Portugal and Russia, who can beat you on the day,' Tietjens said. 'The physicality of the game has also changed. It's no more a wide open game, but rather all about retaining possession. The players are stronger and you need a lot more effort in contact areas than in the past. Teams like South Africa have started using a 15-man strategy, keeping it tight. The game is now dominated by keeping possession of the ball. You got it, you keep it,' Tietjens said.

While New Zealand celebrated yet another title, off the field, too, the champagne was flowing with the series first-ever title sponsors HSBC - which has come on board until 2015 - overjoyed at the interest shown by fans all over the world.

'The target we set with the IRB was to have 500,000 spectators through the turnstiles for the Series. We've reached that target on the final day of the season and it just shows the current success and also the future potential of Sevens as a growing presence in the global rugby family,' said HSBC Holdings group head of sponsorship Giles Morgan.

An unprecedented crowd of 54,000 at Twickenham a fortnight ago was the largest single-day attendance this season.

'What's fantastic is that you look at Hong Kong, which has always been the Daddy of all the Sevens tournaments, and they have their identity; you have Dubai who have established their own very unique party in the desert; Wellington have taken the fancy dress to new heights; Vegas is Vegas and in Twickenham we had a Beach Party. People are embracing the Sevens as fantastic rugby but also as something very different,' said Morgan.

With interest at an all-time high, the IRB is looking at ways to improve the product, and top of the to-do list is bringing on more professional referees - a move which will delight Tietjens, who has been a long-time advocate of full-time sevens referees.

'We are looking at having specialised referees for sevens,' said IRB Sevens tournament director Beth Coalter. 'This season, we had one full-time referee in Australian Andrew Lees. We are now looking at developing more referees, instead of just focusing on 15s [referees].'

Specialist referees are a must, especially with the game becoming more competitive across the board.

'Unlike in the past, there are no cricket scores these days. Instead, most games are close, lots ending in upsets and draws, too,' Coalter said. 'This season for the first time we've had the likes of Russia and Portugal making it through to the Cup quarter-finals in Hong Kong.

'Canada are massively improved, Spain are making giant strides. As ever in the Oceania region, the likes of Tonga and the Cook Islands are really competitive, and in Asia Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong are getting stronger all the time,' Coalter said.

Later this month, the IRB will reveal its calendar for next season and it is probable the series will be expanded to include a couple more stopovers. Life will get harder, says Tietjens.

'I believe eight tournaments is the right number. But with the series becoming more popular, especially with the increasing number of fans, it is likely we might see a few more legs added on,' Tietjens said.

'We might even see three events held on successive weekends and that will be physically testing for the players. We might have to look at increasing squad numbers for the injury toll will surely rise. It will be a real challenge.'

Indeed, and one which the sevens mastermind is bound to enjoy as he looks forward to carrying on his unbelievable run.

Eye on tv

The HSBC Sevens World Series was seen by people in a record 140 countries in 15 languages.

The 400-million home barrier was broken for the first time this season as the world watched.

NBC showed the Las Vegas Sevens live for the first time. Matches were aired in more than 100 million homes.

Six years ago the total airtime for the Series was 300 hours. This season's coverage amounted to 10 times that figure.

The official highlights programme after every tournament is carried inflight on four major airlines - Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Air New Zealand and British Airways.