NEW ZEALAND HAVE come under threat from various hordes in the past four seasons in the IRB Sevens. First it was Fiji, then Australia, followed by South Africa and lastly England. The Kiwis have stopped the barbarians at the gate - but only just. Will they be able to do it once again and win their fifth successive IRB Sevens crown this year? Or will England, proud World Cup winners of the 15s code, broaden their world domination by grabbing the sevens title, too?
An indication as to what might pan out when the 2003-04 season ends will be seen by Sunday when the fifth leg of the IRB Sevens ends in what should be another bruising battle for Cup spoils at the Hong Kong Stadium.
If New Zealand are in the final, then opponents will have missed out on a golden opportunity to close the gap on the leaders, and more importantly, the Kiwis would have cemented their position with the Hong Kong Sevens offering more points (since it is the only 24-team event in the eight-leg series) than other stops.
'You can win the series by not winning any leg of the series. But it would be great if we could win every tournament. And it is time that we started to win more finals,' warns New Zealand sevens guru Gordon Tietjens.
New Zealand have won only one tournament this season - the Wellington Sevens. The key to their success - they lead England by 16 points in the standings - is due to the fact they have contested all the other three finals, losing to South Africa (in Dubai), England (in George, South Africa) and Argentina (in Los Angeles).
Tietjens is in the process of reshaping a team that have lost sevens stalwarts such as Karl Te Nana and Craig de Goldi. Although the legendary Eric Rush is back for the first time this season, it is not easy to replace Te Nana and De Goldi, both of whom have captained the Kiwis in the past.
The loss of a player such as Te Nana is huge. The two-time Player of the Tournament (2000 and 2001: the only player other than Fiji great Waisale Serevi to win in successive years) has moved to Japan where he is playing corporate rugby. De Goldi, too, has been lured by the yen.
'Their absence is a huge loss. Te Nana played in the first two tournaments this season, while De Goldi played in Wellington and Los Angeles. We will miss their experience,' says Tietjens.
So the presence of the 39-year-old Rush, who will be playing a record 15th time in Hong Kong, is a bonus for Tietjens, who holds the proud record of having coached the Kiwis to five Cup championship titles here (1994, 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2001).
'What he brings to the team is invaluable. He knows what is needed to handle the extra pressure of the Hong Kong tournament,' says Tietjens, who has been in charge of the national sevens set-up since 1994.
That was the year he brought along a Tongan teenager called Jonah Lomu. In 1995, Lomu won the Player of the Tournament title. The following year, Tietjens unleashed Christian Cullen, who went on to dazzle the crowd as New Zealand completed their only hat-trick of Cup titles in the history of the Hong Kong Sevens. And Cullen also ran off with the Player of the Tournament title.
Both Lomu and Cullen went on to star for the All Blacks. Tietjens takes pride in unearthing raw talented youngsters. Remember Joe Rokocoko from two years ago? Now, who among the latest batch, will go on to greater things?
Look no further than Rudi Wulf. Just turned 20, Wulf (his first name is Rudolffe), possesses all the attributes to follow in the footsteps of Lomu and Cullen. The 1.82 metre, 90 kilogram back was the Player of the Tournament at the National Sevens, leading North Harbour to victory. He has speed, a factor Tietjens will need to counter the English and South Africans.
Lean, hungry and keen, opponents will have to watch out for Wulf. Last season, he struggled to get in the North Harbour team, but now he is representing his country at the most prestigious sevens tournament in the world.
'It is just awesome that I will be playing at the Hong Kong Sevens,' says Wulf. 'It is like a dream for me. I have watched this tournament so many times on television that to find myself actually here is just amazing.'
Like Wulf, other players who are making their Hong Kong debut are 17-year-old Tanerau Latimer and Sosene Anesi. 'Wulf and Anesi will give us the pace that we badly lacked last time. We will be able to counter sides like England with these players,' says Tietjens.
But he is not even thinking so far ahead to a projected showdown with England. First, New Zealand have to see off Italy, the United States and Japan in the preliminary rounds. 'There are no easy matches these days. At the moment, all I'm thinking of is how to beat Japan. We have set the benchmark for the past few years and now the others are catching up,' said Tietjens.
But not quite yet. In its inaugural season (1999-2000), New Zealand pipped Fiji by six points to win the IRB Sevens crown. Then they beat off Australia (2000-01) by a 12-point margin. In 2001-02, the Kiwis were untouchable, winning by 62 points from South Africa. Last season was the closest, with New Zealand pipping England by just four points.
The barbarians have been stopped at the gates so far. But for how much longer can New Zealand ward off the hordes. We will know on Sunday, what the end of the season has in store.