Comment by the “Kiwi” – John “JT” Taylor
The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) is still deciding what to do with their Sevens program while the rest of the world rugby ‘superpowers’ like USA, Japan, Uganda, Russia, Scotland, Wales and the Canadian 7’s programs have caught up and now beat us.
The silver fern is not instilling fear into anybody at 7’s level anymore. Dare I say it, but the Fijians stole a march on NZ by employing the best 7’s coach in the world at the time, Ben Ryan. It paid huge dividends. Gone are the Fijian frailties of head high tackling, poor kicking and hit and miss form which gave them ecstatic highs and devastating lows.
Ryan improved their weaknesses, and married their strength, speed and uncanny ball skills to form a potent mix of consistent, new age Fijian7’s rugby. The outcome – an Olympic Gold Medal.
NZ used to be the most professional team in both the non-and semi-professional eras. The constant being Gordon Tietjens with his punishing fitness regimes, strict diets and a pragmatic NZ way of playing 7’s. It was hugely successful with 14 World Series titles and 4 Commonwealth Games golds.
But not now in the Olympic era where most countries, certainly the top 16, have adopted a massive surge in corporately-backed programs and full time professionalism. It is now a different sport to rugby 15’s. There remains the certainty of the Laws of Union but the backbone of the game is fundamentally changed to a much faster, more dynamic hybrid of touch, league, union and AFL. The skills needed are an amalgam of these sports.
Our best is qualifying for the last 8 (just!). Fact is NZ have been arrogant and slow to embrace the level of resources needed to compete in an Olympic sport. As much as I admire Gordon Tietjens for what he did with the NZ Men’s 7’s program over two decades, he should have gone two, even three years ago when the tide was changing. These guys have to be full time like Fiji are now, as well as England, Australia and SA – the big four. NZ not even mentioned now in that four or semi-final calculations, and every team now knows, and more importantly thinks, they have a chance against them.
So three things to do urgently in the NZ situation
- Far greater resources to be allocated with central facilities at either Marlborough (best weather and central location in NZ), Palmerston North, with its Silver Fern facilities, or Wellington. At this facility, make funds available for a full time, well remunerated professional manager to oversee all and only the NZ men’s and women’s 7’s teams.
- Centrally control NZRU full-time contracts for the sevens participants. The manager would control these within their budget. This would definitely need to include comprehensive coaching, technical and world-class wellbeing sport professionals. The program needs state-of-the-art facilities a-la the NFL franchises in the American Gridiron scene. Their facilities are so far ahead of anything in NZ. Within these NFL franchises, the precise and minute attention to detail is phenomenal.
- A comprehensive detailed in-season, out of season periodised plan for 1, 2, 4, and 8 year seasonal programs needs to be submitted by the coaching teams for appraisal and ratification. In accordance with these plans, the ideal fit becomes their talent identification template to hopefully uphold the definition of their ideal 7’s athlete. Once selection and contracts are sorted, a natural synchronisation with the coaching, game style and leadership should be the easy part. So the exhaustive planning they need to go forward will bear fruit sooner.
As a general thought I don’t think the NZ teams are as fit and fast enough as other teams. I see NZ playing within themselves to preserve, rather than playing fluently and expressively as they did in past campaigns of over a decade ago in particular.
Most countries are picking gifted sprint athletes to get speed into their programs. I think that NZ picks rugby players who are fast at the more stop-start, static game of 15’s.
It appears NZ are literally so slow now that it’s hurting them big time. As former NZ All Blacks selector, Earle Kirton, always said” you gotta have the gas”
But getting back to change, the reticence and lack of a world class, separate 7’s high performance program is in direct opposition to the NZ Maori, the Super Rugby franchises, the U20’s and of course the All Blacks high performance programs which are incredibly well resourced.
NZ has pretty well always led the world in cutting edge innovation and up-to-date coaching in these programs and that is why the lack of proper resourcing and support is now embarrassing.
To see commentators now openly ridiculing the All Blacks Sevens and to see one of NZ 7’s greats, Karl Te Nana on TV being embarrassed is cruel.
NZ has always had the cattle but in addition to hard, fit and skilled 7’s exponents they need players with genuine speed to burn. Indeed without fit, fast athletes with superior endurance and speed, teams just cannot compete at the top for long. Success in this scenario is hit-and-miss at best.
England, SA, the USA, Fiji and Australia are the teams which have invested heavily in national competitions, talent identification, athletic coordination and wellbeing programs for individual athletes and other full-time professional programs, which cater for the full holistic needs of the athletes. By-and-large these are the teams which are filling the semi-finalist’s positions in the 10 World Rugby HSBC 7’s tournaments.
NZ has much to do to compete successfully again at every event, but it is also worth noting that they were only one converted try away from tipping Fiji out of the Rio Olympics quarterfinals this year.
NZ has the cattle no doubt about that. But have they got the balls in the comfy chairs over in the boardroom of the NZRU HQ in Wellington to investigate and then rejuvenate the ailing program?
Will there be enough pressure from their stakeholder groups especially major sponsors Adidas and AIG, to force a loosening of the budget to see the famous black jerseys once again dominating prime time TV?
Time will tell just exactly where the NZ 7’s program really sits in importance on the convoluted agenda at the NZRU boardroom.
Politics, money, fans and stakeholders. Hugely unpopular and unenviable bedfellows.