All Blacks 15s players show interest in Olympic sevens event
15s players lured by gold prospects but coach says they must go through the selection process
The lure of winning a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games has already resulted in a number of All Blacks lining up to join the sevens squad, but New Zealand's coaching guru, Gordon Tietjens, warned they would not have automatic preference and would have to first prove themselves.
Sevens, once regarded as a stepping stone to 15s, is no longer just a sideshow, according to Tietjens and other speakers at a round table discussion organised by the game's main sponsor, HSBC, on the eve of the Dubai Sevens.
And the Kiwi mastermind underlined the growing importance of the abbreviated version when he revealed that several All Blacks had already put their hands up for Olympic selection.
"I've already had a number of players' agents get in touch with me, saying their players were available for the Olympics in 2016. Liam Messam's [All Blacks backrower] agent sent me an e-mail saying Liam wanted to be in the team for Rio. Another All Blacks player who has also expressed interest is Israel Dagg [winger]," Tietjens said.
Tietjens has coached New Zealand to four Commonwealth Games gold medals, achieved manifold successes at the IRB World Series and has gone on record saying an Olympic gold would be the pinnacle. However, simply being an All Black does not guarantee a place in the team.
"My philosophy is that you have to prove yourself worthy of being in the squad. They will have to be fit and conditioned and must play in five or six tournaments in the HSBC Sevens World Series in the run-up to the Olympics. It is fair enough that they are All Blacks, but there will be a lot of competition for the few spots," said Tietjens.
"We will also have several young players who are just committed to sevens as they see this sport as an opportunity to make their name, especially at the Olympics. I know there will be several rugby league players who will be keen to win an Olympic medal, too. So everyone will have to measure up," Tietjens added.
The importance given to sevens worldwide now that it is in the Olympics has even resulted in the New Zealand Rugby Union deciding that from this season onwards, its sevens squad would be known as the New Zealand All Blacks Sevens.
While 38 players have gone from playing sevens for New Zealand to become All Blacks - luminaries such as Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and Messam - Tietjens said the future could see youngsters solely focusing on sevens as a career with the Olympics as the main goal.
While the 15-a-side game will always have a strong foothold in New Zealand and other traditional rugby-playing countries, the increasing profile of sevens has seen some nations where the focus is only on this newer version.
The best example is China, where 15s has all but been ignored, while authorities dwell on the Olympic sport of sevens. At least seven to nine provinces in China have sevens programmes as they build up to next year's National Games. Beijing, the powerhouse of rugby on the mainland, has a 35-strong squad of men and women chasing their Olympic dream at a month-long training camp in Taranaki, New Zealand
But IRB Sevens manager Beth Coalter warned that countries ignoring 15s did so at their peril. "You cannot be a member of the IRB unless you play 15s," Coalter said, a view that Gavin Hastings, former Scotland and British and Irish Lions captain, found strange.
"Why should we impose rugby, 15-a-side, on developing nations if they want to play sevens?" asked Hastings, an ambassador for the game with HSBC. "Sevens is a game in its own right and it embraces everything good that rugby stands for, and more so as it is easier to understand."
Coalter conceded that this official view could change in the future now that sevens is such a key part of the game's fabric. "If you ask me this question after 2020 you might get a different answer," she said.
James Fitzgerald, IRB media manager, added: "We still see it as a positive thing, that China is interested in developing rugby programmes. Sevens is the ideal game for developing unions and we are delighted that China is placing emphasis on sevens."
The financial support from the corporate world will also continue, according to Andrea de Vincentiis, HSBC's head of rugby sponsorship.
"We back both sevens and 15s programmes. In sevens, we sponsor the world series and of course the Hong Kong Sevens. In 15s, our flagship sponsorship is the British and Irish Lions [the bank also supports the Asian Five Nations] and this will continue. I don't see any conflict of interest," De Vincentiis said.