Two-time Player of the Tournament Karl Te Nana will not be back to help New Zealand defend their title at next month's Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Sevens. New Zealand sevens captain Eric Rush, in town last week for a speaking engagement, revealed Te Nana would be unavailable for the March 22-24 tournament due to Super 12 commitments with the Waikato Chiefs.
'His absence will be felt badly. We will miss his experience out wide,' Rush said. 'Last year Karl was loaned by the Chiefs for the entire World Sevens Series. But this time they told us he would be only available for the Wellington leg. We will miss him badly in Hong Kong.'
The mercurial Te Nana was picked as Player of the Tournament at the last two Hong Kong Sevens. Last year he picked up the slack left by the gaping absence of the injured Rush - who had broken a leg at the Sevens Rugby World Cup - and led New Zealand to victory in the Cup competition.
Te Nana engineered one of the greatest escape acts seen at the Hong Kong Stadium when he scored two tries in the semi-final as the Kiwis came back from a 12-0 deficit to beat Australia 14-12 in injury time. After lifting the Cup, Te Nana: 'That one was for Rushie.'
The man in whose footsteps he has followed repaid the tribute. Rush said: 'Karl is just outstanding. His experience is vital and we will miss it. But I guess we will have to make do with what we have. While the competition has got tougher, I'm confident we can do well.'
Rush said there was a possibility coach Gordon Tietjens might pick two up-and-coming youngsters, Anthony Koon Wai-yu, a Samoan-Chinese, and Joe Rococoko. Both players are pacy wingers and are only 17. 'They are still going to school. Anthony played with us in Brisbane and he had to return to school the very next day. They are both players to watch out for,' Rush said.
New Zealand currently head the 11-leg IRB World Sevens Series with 80 points, eight ahead of second-placed South Africa. The Kiwis won the opening two events in Durban and Chile while the other three legs played so far have been divided between Fiji, Australia and South Africa.
According to Rush, the days when New Zealand and Fiji dominated the sevens scene were over. 'All the others have improved and you can see it from the results so far this year. Now every game is hard. It is much harder to win.'
And with Te Nana not in their midst this time, the pressure will increase tenfold on Rush and the Kiwis to repeat their success last year. New Zealand will be the top seeds when organisers hold the draw for the Hong Kong Sevens at the Rotunda in Exchange Square today.
The International Rugby Board will seed the top 12 teams in the 24-team competition. This will be done on the basis of their performance this year. This will see the Kiwis, South Africa, Samoa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia head the six pools at the Hong Kong Sevens. In the most interesting development that follows from this seeding format, seventh-placed England will be drawn with Australia in a battle of old rivals.
Meanwhile, Italy have withdrawn from this year's tournament citing a heavy schedule. They have been replaced by Thailand.
'Italy were always doubtful due to the Six Nations Championship and other international commitments. But we are pleased that Thailand are able to return now,' said Hong Kong Rugby Football Union executive director Allan Payne.