Kaka chooses sevens, Tietjens eyes Rio

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 12/11/2013

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Gillies Kaka represents a new breed of a sevens specialist - young, talented but, unlike previous incarnations, fully contracted to the abbreviated game.

The 23-year-old Hawke's Bay outside back was one of an unprecedented eight players to be awarded fulltime sevens contracts when the New Zealand squad was named last week.

It may not have dawned on Magpies fans that Kaka won't play much more than a match or two in next year's national provincial championship.

But it has got New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens excited as he starts to build the core of his 2016 Olympic Games squad. "For someone like a Gillies Kaka, being so young it's basically player choice.

"He decided he wanted to have a crack as a fulltime contracted player," Tietjens said this week. "I approached them.

"I look at the players I want to contract fulltime and I ask them. They don't all say yes.

"Sherwin Stowers was also one of those, but he just felt with [Counties Manukau] having the Ranfurly Shield, he'd still like to have an opportunity to play ITM Cup next year."

Up until now Tietjens has operated with only a handful of fulltime players but Olympic inclusion means he has got more to offer as he chases specialists.

That includes a chunk of the $6.4 million over four years that High Performance Sport New Zealand has injected into the sevens programme. Sevens base salaries have shot up from $25,000 to $45,000, plus $2000 per tournament, to between $70,000 and $120,000 per year.

"Some players identify that in the scheme of things, yep, I could make a Super Rugby squad, but I might not be in the 22 or 23 each week," Tietjens said.

Sam Dickson, David Raikuna and Scott Curry are other young players now fully committed to sevens but, notably, Tietjens' main focus has been securing his older players. That is because fulltime contracting has given him more confidence than ever they will be around for a tilt at gold in Rio. "We are starting to create depth but it is based around the fulltime guys and they are no different now to Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu for example in the All Blacks. DJ Forbes, [Tomasi] Cama, [Tim] Mikkelson and [Lote] Raikabula, there are four guys alone with a lot of tournaments under their belts.

"I take one year at a time but Cama is turning 33 and his conditioning levels and the way he trains are simply unbelievable.

"Even his speed has improved. For longevity and staying in the game longer, sevens is the ideal vehicle for that." Being fulltime means a longer recovery period between tournaments, and not having to chop and change between training programmes tailored for sevens and fifteens.

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But Tietjens is quick to allay fears he will be ripping talented youngsters out of the system before they make their mark.

"Younger players, the Joe Webber, the Ambrose Curtis, well they can quite honestly and realistically become an All Black. They aspire to be a Super Rugby player and that won't change, so sevens remains a big part of that development and wants to be a part of that.

"Other guys who might have just come out of the New Zealand under-20s and aren't going to get a Super contract because it's their first year as a professional, the best option for them is probably a fulltime sevens contract with the option of still going back to fifteens."

Tietjens plans to have 20 players on fulltime contracts by 2016 with some top All Blacks expected to attempt to make the temporary switch for the Olympics.

- Wellington

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