Pondering NZ's sevens squad for Rio Olympics

BEN STRANG
Last updated 05:00 02/08/2014
Julian Savea
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RIO BOUND?: Julian Savea is likely to be top of Gordon Tietjens’s wishlist for the Rio Olympics.

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OPINION: Speed, size and adaptability.

They are the keys to success in sevens rugby, and the attributes Gordon Tietjens will be looking for when he comes to select his team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

You've got to be rugby's version of a Swiss pocket knife to make Tietjens' head turn, and then he will make you fitter than you have ever been before.

As New Zealand Sevens captain DJ Forbes puts it: ''You've got to be a halfback, you've got to be a lock in the air, you've got to be a flanker on the ball, you've got to be a winger, first five, everything.''

There is a common belief that if you are good enough to play Super Rugby or for the All Blacks, you could slot into the New Zealand Sevens team.

Far from it.

Just like Liam Neeson in Taken, sevens players possess a very particular set of skills.

They are skills your ordinary 15s player doesn't always have. Each and every sevens player is a utility, able to switch positions with ease.

Positioning is more fluid in sevens. Players switch positions with the flow of the game and need to be able to adapt and thrive.

The contracted New Zealand Sevens players have a huge advantage in that regard, but there are several talented 15s players who could make the switch for Rio.

Tietjens will add firepower, and his decisions could come down to the structure of the Rio tournament, which has yet to be determined.

Looking at it two years out, the squad of 12 should be based around established sevens stars.

Barring injury, DJ Forbes will be leading the team in Rio, accompanied by Scott Curry, Tim Mikkelson, Sherwin Stowers and Gillies Kaka.

They are five pillars of Tietjens' sevens squad, and that won't change in the next two years.

Given New Zealand Rugby's co-operation, Tietjens will then recruit proven former players, mixed with those he is confident will convert into strong sevens players.

Julian Savea and brother Ardie would be near the top of his wish-list, alongside Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett.

The Saveas bring brute strength, speed, agility and serious ball skills. Smith is a try scorer, speed demon and knows how to get through the defence, while Barrett would be a playmaker.

All four have represented New Zealand in sevens, and will know what to expect.

Sonny Bill Williams has already signalled his intent to play in Rio, and Tietjens will be more than happy to bring him into the fold, despite his lack of a sevens background.

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Tietjens has also talked about wanting IRB World Player of the Year Kieran Read, who would provide strong running, turnovers, and a relentless workrate.

With the remaining spot, Tietjens may bring in a youthful, x-factor player capable of changing games.

Given two years' more development, that could well be New Zealand under-20s youngster Damian McKenzie.

McKenzie could slot in as a creator or use his pace and agility out wide.

The comparisons to another former sevens star, Christian Cullen, started during the Under-20 World Cup this year, and should his development continue, the sky's the limit.

That 12-man squad would have Forbes, Curry, and Read playing in the forwards, Julian Savea, Stowers, Kaka, Smith, Barrett and McKenzie in the backs, and Williams, Ardie Savea and Mikkelson able to play both.

Tietjens may have other ideas, but it would be hard to beat a squad with that quality and proven sevens experience.

Whoever Tietjens chooses in two years' time, gold will be the expectation.

NZ sevens squad for Rio '16?: DJ Forbes (c), Scott Curry, Tim Mikkelson, Sherwin Stowers, Gillies Kaka, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Ardie Savea, Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett, Kieran Read, Damian McKenzie.

- Waikato Times

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