‘Sir, can I eat this?’ – legendary sevens rugby coach Gordon Tietjens offers food for thought in new Samoa role
Award-laden former New Zealand coach finding challenge of building up Pacific islanders is very much to his taste
After a decorated 22-year stint at the helm of New Zealand, master coach Gordon Tietjens has provided more than a little food for thought since taking the reins at Samoa.
Tietjens is credited with changing the game when it comes to diet in sevens rugby and while it is yet to show in Samoa’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series performances, the Kiwi is making his presence felt.
“They were not training hard enough and they weren’t eating the right food, simple as that,” Tietjens said.
“I had one team member, he said to me : ‘Sir, I train twice a day in Samoa, I eat less food than I do here in New Zealand, and I put on weight.
“‘I’ve beenwith you for three weeks, training twice a day, eating more and I’ve dropped seven kilos.’ “The boys are making huge shifts around fitness and nutrition.”
Tietjens and Samoa make a good match, with the 61-year-old’s boundless sevens knowledge equalled only by his players’ hunger to learn.
“They have such a good attitude towards being coached,” he says. “They’re bursting for information. They’re keen to follow instructions on everything and take direction.
“They’ll come up to me and ask at breakfast, ‘Sir, can I eat this?’ Samoans are inherently very polite, very religious, very respectful of their elders, and their mothers. All mothers. And coaches.”
With resources limited in Samoa, Tietjens, affectionately known as Titch throughout the rugby world, is putting his contacts in New Zealand to good use.
He is using training camps in North Island’s Mt Maunganui – where there is a Gordon Tietjens field as part of the Mt Maunganui High Performance Centre – to instil his five pillars of success.
Results don’t just come from food for Titch, with his tried and tested five-pronged plan netting eight Hong Kong Sevens titles, 12 World Series crowns and two World Cup Sevens.
“Apart from nutrition, you’ve got to develop the right culture,” he says. “I grew up with strong family values. Culture is the core of success and I bring to my boys the values I was raised with.
“Old style and traditional. Straight up. This is easy for them, because Samoans are so family-minded.
“The third tool is team selection. The fourth is conditioning, and the fifth is resources.”
But such is the importance Tietjens puts on food as part of his mantra, former Kiwi star Eric Rush would frequently make mention of it while in Hong Kong during his sevens career.
“I’m the only 40-year old who isn’t allowed to eat my ice cream, even if I eat my vegetables,” Rush would say.
“This is where the game is now. Without the right food, you can’t perform,” Tietjens says.
That’s not to say he is coaching the Samoans exactly as he tackled the New Zealand job and his excitement at his new role with Samoa is palpable.
No-one was too surprised when Ben Ryan resigned as Fiji coach after the Olympics. After you’ve won the first-ever Olympic Sevens in Rio, where do you go?
But Tietjens’ decision to defect from New Zealand after 22 years put a cat among the pigeons. Tietjens had several offers, which he’d prefer not to reveal.
“One was a 14-hour flight away” is as close as he’ll go – perhaps the United States? – and says he joined Samoa for myriad reasons.
For starters, he says, he “gets” the Samoan culture, having worked with them for years.
“Samoan players are everywhere,” he said. “Any team in the world you look at, you’re likely to see Samoans. And I’m so used to working with them.
“There would be just about as many Samoans living in New Zealand as there are in their own country. “There’s close to 185,000 Samoans living in New Zealand. Fiji has one million people. We are talking far fewer numbers.”
The population of Samoa is just 190,000 and it would be easy to wonder why a coach of Titch’s tutelage would shrink his pool and his sights to such small numbers, but ever a man with a plan, he says: “It may be considered a ‘lesser’ rugby nation, but there’s a depth to the talent here. And there’s real quality.”
After over two decades in the pressure cooker that is coaching in New Zealand Titch is clearly enjoying his new challenge and is looking forward to bringing his side to Hong Kong.
“Stepping down from coaching New Zealand was like having 22 years of pressure lifted off my shoulders,” he said.
“Anyone who has coached a sevens team or a 15-a-side team in New Zealand knows the enormous pressure and the challenge and expectation every week to perform and win. I had a lot of success with it, and a lot of it was due to the Hong Kong Sevens.
“Every week you are challenged to put together a new game plan. In the old days, you might have known you were playing against, say, Scotland. Now, you’ve got to do the extra homework and have as much intel on each player.
“You’ve got to find out if they’ve been injured and how. What the team and each player’s form is. It’s out there if you look, but it takes a huge amount of time and effort. ”
Tietjens will be leaving no stone unturned to ensure Samoa are at the top of their game come Hong Kong, but one suspects he’ll also be keeping a close watch on how the New Zealanders are travelling.
“People don’t recognise me out of my black New Zealand shirt, I wear a blue Samoa one, but I still wear my New Zealand hat and glasses,” he said.
Behind those glasses, the eyes are always watching. And, as ever, there’s always some things that only Titch knows the answers to.
“I love the game of sevens, Hong Kong will always be the benchmark,” he said.
And that’s all that really matters.