'Death' drill breathes life into Titch's teams

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 03/02/2013
Gordon Tietjens
PHIL REID/ FAIRFAX NZ
HARD TASKMASTER: New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens.

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As she was accepting the award for the Bay of Plenty coach-of-the-year in December, the lovely Noeline Taurua, of the Magic netball team, had a quiet word to say.

OPINION: On stage with her as the MC, she leaned towards me, and said, "I'm amazed. I thought they'd give it to Titch."

If a prophet is usually without honour in his home town, that's not the case with Gordon Tietjens, a man still building what is already the most extraordinary coaching career in New Zealand rugby.

In the 20 years he's run the New Zealand sevens team the results are sensational, and the best is yet to come, with the prospect of competing for an Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016.

What's never changed, thankfully, is the man, still, as people who work with him will always tell you, as committed, down-to-earth, and honourable as he was from the day in 1994 when he first took over the New Zealand side.

Eric Rush, Tietjens' playing lieutenant in numerous campaigns, says that after the first training session with the new coach, "I thought he was a bloody maniac. He worked us so hard he wasn't happy until everyone was walking at training."

Tietjens would include a game of scrag that ran over four exhausting seven-minute quarters. It came to be known by the players, not altogether in jest, by the name "Death".

Over time, Rush came to appreciate the method behind the apparent madness. Before the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpar, where the team won the first of a stunning four Commonwealth gold medals, Tietjens ran a legendary two-hour session in Singapore to test, and improve, mental toughness.

Christian Cullen's pulse rate spiked at 194. Bruce Reihana confessed later he might have tried to hit Tietjens if he'd been able to lift his arms.

The super-fit, totally dedicated players who emerged from the Tietjens' cauldron were unstoppable. In the 1998 Games semifinal against Samoa, a late Samoan try could have eliminated New Zealand, but Rico Gear was there to make a tournament-saving tackle. Just as significantly, not one, but three other New Zealand players were at his shoulder.

Through it all Tietjens has remained the good keen man who still works at Bay Engineers in Mt Maunganui when he's not coaching the sevens team.

There's never been a hint of pretension about him. Take the brutally succinct way he sums up his obsession with correct diet. "If you eat shit, you feel shit."

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The drive for good nutrition apparently extends to his workplace, where the company owner, Warwick Talbut, says he's been known to "hover over people, making comments about what they're eating until they tell him to bugger off so they can eat their food in peace".

How that philosophy plays out with the players was shown on television at the Kuala Lumpar Games. Rush, showing a television journalist around the Games village with a camera rolling, pushed open a door and two genuinely shocked players guiltily tried to hide chocolate and potato chips by stuffing them under a blanket.

Tietjens doesn't just talk the talk. He's living proof good nutrition - "He picks bloody sandwiches apart to take out the cheese," says employer Talbut - and exercise - a habit Tietjens started when growing up in a family that didn't have a car so walked and biked around Rotorua - produce a strong, lean person. That integrity allows him to drive players mercilessly, without invoking any charges of double standards.

The big test of character coming will be how he deals with big-name players who want the chance to add an Olympic medal to their CV.

With the Rio Olympics starting on August 5, Tietjens will need a commitment for the year that will preclude his squad playing Super rugby, or test matches, in 2016.

Already Sonny Bill Williams has hinted he'd like to have a crack at the team. Even Benji Marshall has flirted with the idea. Does Tietjens go with the super athletes, or stay loyal to his sevens' specialists? Fortunately, he has a perfect way to sort out the truly committed from the glory seekers. It's a game that feels like it never ends. They call it Death.

- Sunday Star Times

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