There’s a big sevens tournament in Hamilton this weekend.
Apparently. Round three of the 2018-19 World Sevens Series, no less.
Gee, you wouldn’t know it given the dearth of wider national media coverage, certainly in New Zealand’s largest newspaper.
Not that long ago, the NZ Sevens in Wellington was given wall to wall coverage. Of the footy, that is. Then it morphed into a closer look at how drunk people got (very) before the event upped sticks after 18 mostly successful years in the capital.
The All Blacks, as we know, monopolise media coverage, often to the detriment of other national teams. That is not the All Blacks’ fault, of course. But some of the mainstream media might need jolting that the Olympics are in Tokyo next year.
The All Blacks Sevens will be there, anxious to perform better than in 2016 when they imploded in spectacularly unexpected style in Rio. They just have to qualify in this World Series cycle. They should do it, as coach Clark Laidlaw has proven he is on the right track after the odd early hiccup.
After the departure of Sir Gordon Tietjens, one of the greatest talent scouts in the history of rugby, in 2016, things got messy for the All Blacks Sevens. The anointed one, Laidlaw himself, had to see out the second season of his London Irish contract. Scott Waldrom manfully stepped up as interim coach and did a fair job in difficult circumstances, helped by the admirable old warhorse DJ Forbes.
Laidlaw has built a culture, helped immeasurably by a centralised training base which sees the squad train together in Mt Maunganui. However, they had to settle for third place in the 2017-18 World Series. But they were peaking for two big events – the April Commonwealth Games and the July RWC Sevens. They delivered in style in both marquee tournaments. On the Gold Coast, their dissection of Fiji in the final was a tactical masterpiece. Led by a superb display in the RWC final against England by skipper Scott Curry, they were clinical in the clutch.
The 20-man squad for 2019 is full of experience, pace, sevens nous and X-factor. Many have re-signed medium-term, which shows they want be part of the sevens landscape. In the past it was mostly used as a stepping stone to Super Rugby.
We will have to wait a bit longer to see Niko Jones in action, but he is a tremendous young talent who could easily be in Tokyo. The unheralded work comes from the likes of Sam Dickson, strong aerially, Andrew Knewstubb and Dylan Collier.
The side showed a heap of resilience and character to overcome a plethora of injuries to open up the 2018-19 World Series with a Cup final win in Dubai, their first in the UAE since 2009. Fourth position in Cape Town was as a direct result of those injuries.
So, in between mowing the lawns and checking on the cricket this Saturday, tune in at 12.36pm, 4.26pm and 8.36pm. New Zealand should romp through its pool, but watch for form, patterns of play and who looks sharp. Then watch even more closely on Sunday when the real edge is there. Keep watching this team between now and Tokyo 2020. They are worth it.
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