Lure of Olympics fires up NZ women's sevens
Thr lure of an Olympics gold medal has turned women's sevens into an international arms race.
Its inclusion in the 2016 Rio de Janiero Games has sparked interest far and wide and countries such as China are investing big bucks into their sevens Olympic programmes.
Just last week, Taranaki Rugby signed a contract to bring a handful of China's most promising sevens players to New Plymouth for specialist coaching.
New Zealand women's sevens coach Sean Horan said the global interest has grown exponentially.
"You've got England as the current Challenge Cup champions, they beat Canada and Netherlands and Australia. Then you've big investments from countries like Spain, China and the sort," he said.
"There is a fair amount of interest out there. It's going to become a very, very competitive game, which is good."
Closer to home, Horan has left no stone unturned in building his own side of medal hopefuls.
The ex-Marist St Pat's hooker, who is now based in the Bay of Plenty, has trawled the country enlisting players.
The women's sevens recruitment drive in February, Go4Gold, attracted more than 1000 players.
Triallists swapped codes and disciplines to take part, with elite netballers, experienced 15-a-side players and complete newbies all showcasing their talents for a spot in Horan's squad.
The first cull in May saw a training squad of 40 named.
The second reduced the squad to 12, and they competed at the Oceania championship in Fiji earlier this month.
The lineup included Mystics netballers Portia Woodman and Kayla McAlister, the sister of former All Black Luke McAlister, as well as experienced World Cup champion Black Ferns Linda Itunu, Kendra Cocksedge and Huriana Manuel, and recently capped Black Ferns Shakira Baker and Hazel Tubic.
In Fiji they extended their unbeaten streak to six games and claimed the Oceania title after trouncing World Cup holders Australia 35-24 in the final.
While getting one over the current world champs was a good feeling, it wasn't the target of the tournament, Horan said.
"Winning wasn't the focus for us, it was about development and gaining experience for the players and ourselves as a management team. Every corner we turn is a new experience, and if we have an open mind to learn and develop, I believe we'll have a strong foundation [for Rio]."
Wellington's only member of the team to travel to Fiji was 20-year-old, Wairarapa-based Baker. She debuted for the Black Ferns last year, before catapulting her way into women's sevens side this year.
She dreams of being an Olympian, and said the competition building towards Rio was already fierce. "I've already seen video clips on the internet and stuff of China and USA, everyone's already going hard out for Rio."
The Dominion Post