Drive for five no easy road for New Zealand 7s
New Zealand are favourites for another sevens title at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games next week, but a fifth straight gold medal isn't a certainty.
Since sevens was first introduced to the Games at Petaling Jaya Stadium in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, the sport has taken off.
Gordon Tietjens' men romped to that first title in Malaysia, which included massive wins against the Bahamas (93-0), Sri Lanka (80-0) and Malaysia (55-0).
They beat Fiji 21-12 in the final, with Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu, Eric Rush and Roger Randle key figures in the final victory.
It was New Zealand's 100th gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, leaving Lomu, Rush and company in tears.
Since then New Zealand have remained unbeaten, marching to gold in Manchester, Melbourne and New Delhi.
But with the inclusion of sevens at the Olympics from 2016, teams are putting more resources into sevens and the gap between the top nations is closing.
Still, New Zealand remain ahead of the pack, setting the standard in winning the past four IRB Sevens World Series titles.
That's why Tietjens doesn't rate the Games as being any harder than the nine tournaments his team has played in this season's World Series.
"I think they're all tough. There's no easy tournament," he said. "Doesn't matter if it's a World Series tournament or Comm Games, the pressure is always on.
"The excitement of representing all the other sports that are representing New Zealand as well, and the support that we'll get there will build the boys up."
Tietjens' squad is loaded with sevens talent, and a lack of Super Rugby players will not be a problem.
Only Blues midfielder Pita Ahki has been brought into the squad from Super Rugby, with Tietjens choosing to stick with his World Series winning squad.
New Zealand take on hosts Scotland, Canada and Barbados in pool play.
Scotland and Canada are both World Series core teams, and were in New Zealand's pool in Delhi in 2010, and Manchester 2002.
In 2002 Canada escaped the group, but in 2010 it was Scotland who emerged from pool play with New Zealand, and at home they would be hoping to do it again.
Canada are making huge strides and could be a key player at Rio 2016.
They should be too good for Scotland in Glasgow.
After pool play,New Zealand should play Kenya in the quarters, followed by England in the semifinals.
On the other side of the draw, South Africa should play Canada and Australia, based on World Series form.
That is unless Kenya can produce an upset in pool play against South Africa, which would tee up a daunting quarterfinal between New Zealand and South Africa.
One given in sevens is that upsets do happen, such as Tonga beating South Africa at Melbourne 2006, or the Cook Islands stunning Kenya in 2002.
New Zealand are the only team that seem immune to the occasional upset, and that shouldn't change in Glasgow.
- Sunday Star Times