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'Sevens is a fickle game': Monaco favourites China taking nothing for granted

By Martyn Thomas
MADRID, SPAIN - JUNE 01: Gu Yaoyao of China in action during the HSBC Rugby SVNS Series match played between China and Poland at Civitas Metropolitano stadium on June 01, 2024 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo By Oscar J. Barroso/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Sir Gordon Tietjens believes China will start the women’s tournament at the World Rugby Sevens Repechage on Friday with a target on their backs due to their unparalleled success this year.

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China head into the final Olympic qualifier in Monaco having won 21 of their 22 matches across the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger and HSBC SVNS Play-off in 2024, a run that carried them to promotion to next season’s world series.

As Tietjens, who has been working with the squad as a high-performance consultant, concedes, though, their “job’s not fully done” with qualification for Paris 2024 vital to Chinese rugby’s attempts to grow in popularity.

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China will unsurprisingly start the repechage at Stade Louis II as favourites given their form, yet the fact there is only one ticket to Paris on offer in Monaco means they have no room for error.

“The challenge that we also have is every team that play us now, they feel they’ve got nothing to lose. We’re the team that has gone through and won everything,” Tietjens says.

“So, they go in with that mindset and sometimes that can be really difficult. Sevens is a fickle game, a bad call [or] you lose some points very, very early and you’re chasing the game and you haven’t got time on your side.

“It’s about doing the simple things well. Catch, pass, make your tackles and it’ll gradually all start happening for you. And obviously the game is all about possession.

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“We realise this weekend’s a different tournament to all the others, and we have to win it and we’ll certainly be giving it everything that we possibly can to put ourselves in the frame to be in the Olympics.”

China have already come through a similar scenario to the one they will face in Monaco, having travelled to Madrid three weeks ago for a one-off tournament that decided their SVNS fate.

Following an imperious Challenger campaign in which they won all three tournament titles in Dubai, Montevideo and Krakow, Lu Zhuan’s side then swept all before them in the Spanish capital.

Even after topping Pool A of the SVNS Play-off at Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano – beating 2024 core teams Spain and Japan along the way – they needed to win their qualifier final against Belgium, something they accomplished in style: winning 33-0.

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“I was really nervous before the final against [Belgium] to get them into the world series,” Tietjens says. “As well as we played in the Challenger series, it really came down to one game and the girls adapted really well.

“They seemed to soak up that pressure and we had the injuries so we had some new players that were having to step up and they did that and to win it comfortably and to beat Japan and Spain was really pleasing because they’d been in the current world series.

“So, that was great and for me, for China Rugby, I think, getting into the world series will do wonders for China.”

Tietjens credits head coach Zhuan hand his coaching staff – who include former All Blacks Sevens player Rocky Khan – for creating an atmosphere in which the players can excel.

They will hope to do that again in Monaco and having remained in Europe following the SVNS Play-off have left no stone unturned in their pursuit of a ticket to Paris.

China will line up in Pool C at Stade Louis II, starting their campaign against Mexico on Friday before matches against Czechia and Poland the following day.

They played those nations eight times across the Challenger and SVNS Play-off this year without losing and will be confident of emerging from the pool.

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The top two from each of the three pools will qualify for the Cup quarter-finals alongside the two best third-placed finishers at the end of the pool stage.

China made their Olympic debut in Tokyo three years ago and Tietjens is well aware of the importance of winning in Monaco this weekend to secure a return to the Games.

“If we come off this weekend with qualifying to go to the Olympics, I think it’s been a fantastic season. [Either way] it’s still been a good season, don’t get me wrong,” Tietjens adds.

“But until you’ve been in China, until you’ve been to the Olympic Training Centre, you only then realise the importance of their country getting into the Olympics and what it means to them, and you know, I now understand that.”

Whatever happens at Stade Louis II this weekend, however, it’s clear that Tietjens has relished his time working with the squad.

“I’ve never been involved in coaching women,” he says. “It’s amazing. I’ve been to the Olympics coaching the All Blacks [Sevens], but I’ve totally enjoyed the role of what I am in high performance and on their programme and the girls are hugely talented.

“They can pass off both hands, they’ve got great spatial awareness, they’re very, very good athletes and they’re always looking to get better.

“I look at some of the video sessions they go in and they bring in their notebooks, they pick it up very, very quickly, and they put a lot of time and effort into being better and to be the best they can be.”

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