Opinions divided over Rio sevens conundrum

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 14:19 30/07/2014
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BACK IN BLACK: Sonny Bill Williams has been granted an exemption by the New Zealand Rugby Union to be selected for the All Blacks’ end of year tour should his rugby league commitments or injury prevent him from playing for Counties Manukau in the national provincial championship this season.

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Opinions in New Zealand rugby are divided on the details of how many top tier fifteens players should be made available for a tilt at Olympic sevens and how those players should be transitioned into rugby's abbreviated game.

New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew confirmed today a number of top tier Super Rugby players and All Blacks would prioritise sevens in 2016 in the lead up to the Rio de Janeiro Games.

However, he said there was plenty of debate around exactly how that process would be handled and hinted the failure to win gold in Glasgow would be factored into discussions.

"We've said we will pick the best team possible to go win a gold medal in Rio, but the debate is what makes that team up?" Tew told Radio Sport. "Is it a lot of players who have been only involved in sevens for a long period of time? Or is it a mix of players who have played both versions of the game?

"In the end it is going to come down to how many and for how long? My sense is we will have some fifteens players who could make a very valuable contribution and transition in a relatively short period of time and others who would need longer."

New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens revealed after his side's 17-12 loss to South Africa in the Commonwealth Games final, that he had sent letters to a number of All Blacks asking them to forgo test and Super Rugby commitments in 2016.

"I think that may well happen. It's how many players would make that call, how many we think would need to, and how long they have to make the commitment to transition," Tew said.

"Depending who you talk to there is a variety of views on those subjects, which is not surprising because it's not an exact science. We are having a healthy debate."

Tietjens wants Olympic contenders to play at least four to six IRB World Series sevens tournaments in 2016.

"The judgement bit that's going to be really critical is working out where that finally sits. [All Blacks coach] Steve [Hansen] has also pointed out at an All Black level we wouldn't want to take our eyes off that ball either," Tew said.

"We clearly have All Blacks who are interested and have it written into their contracts [to be released to play sevens]. We have provisions for it, but we haven't yet finished the debate as to how many will play from fifteens and how long they'll have to play for. The learnings from Glasgow will now be thrown into that discussion."

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That included how a switch to sevens would affect the players' salaries.

"That's one of the things that needs to be taken into account. We haven't drawn a final line on that, but it's fair to say that if there were a small number of players who we thought were critical then we'd have to look after them financially."

The New Zealand squad in Glasgow included just one Super Rugby player, Blues utility back Pita Ahki, who was injured early in the tournament.

In Delhi four years ago Tietjens utilised the services of Ben Smith, Liam Messam, Hosaea Gear and Kurt Baker on the way to winning a third straight gold medal.

But Tew also cautioned against the view that not winning gold in Glasgow was proof the Olympic team needed to be stacked with first string All Blacks.

"I think it's worth mentioning the guys who have committed themselves to sevens over a long period of time and who will likely have done the donkey work to get us qualified," he said.

"One loss in 31 games at the Commonwealth Games doesn't mean the panic balloon needs to go up.

"But nor should we paper over it. We need to be mindful of and look at what other countries are going to do. Ultimately we have a very senior and experienced practitioner in Titch and a number of people in the high performance area around him, all of whom will have the ability to contribute to that debate. That's not likely to conclude until some time near the end of this year.

"We've had it a priority goal for some time and both the men and women in Rio are gold medal aspirations. That's what we've prepared ourselves to do and that's what we'll continue to work toward."

- Stuff

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