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May 31, 2020

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To confirm their place in the team travelling to the Rio Olympics and the chance to win precious gold, Sir Gordon Tietjens' men had to go through hell - in the form of a three-day trial in Mt Maunganui, plus a 24-hour SAS camp. Both assignments stretched them to their limit.

The former occurred about three weeks ago and featured matches between squad members of an intensity comparable with World Series' semifinals. The military component came last week in Papakura - a non-stop series of physical and mental tasks which left them bone-weary, hungry, and desperate for it all to end.

For those players not used to such training techniques, the latter would have struck them as a particularly cruel and unusual punishment. For those familiar with Tietjens, the national men's sevens coach for 22 years who has won more tournaments than he probably remembers, it would have been business as usual.

"You learn a lot about the players individually, who is going to support and back each other up," Tietjens said of the SAS component which was designed to check players' resilience.

"I got a report back on every player and how they performed. A lot of teams do it these days."

Sam Dickson, who ruptured a knee ligament at the Hong Kong World Series tournament in April and elected to rehabilitate the injury rather than have surgery in order to press his claim for Rio, said: "It was a very tough 26 hours. We had to do a lot of carrying, such as lamp-posts - a lot of exercises which we didn't know how long they would take, you just had to continue the task. We were fed minimal food, the only thing you were allowed to have freely was water. Everything else was restricted."


Such toil might be the secret ingredient for gold, but regardless, Tietjens is expecting the by-product to be an esprit de corps unmatched by any other team. Their many recent days of hardship, plus their upcoming camp in rural eastern Bay of Plenty over the next week or so, should ensure that.

"I'd like to think when we go to Rio I'll take away the tightest team, [they will be] really close," he said. "As a squad we've been in camps, but this is the real thing now. You've been named in the side and you're actually going to be an Olympian."

After an injury-plagued year on the world circuit, in which the men's team finished third behind Fiji and South Africa, New Zealand will need a fair bit of luck, as well as many good performances, over three days in Rio starting on August 6.

The women's squad, also named yesterday and which features Sonny Bill Williams' sister Niall Williams, will be challenged hard for the gold medal by Australia, who kept coach Sean Horan's team in second place this year.

For the men's squad, which features the return from injury of captain Scott Curry, plus that of key forward Dickson, and the non-selections of Liam Messam and Kurt Baker, Tietjens knows there are no guarantees, but few teams will travel with the height and size of his.

"The three tournaments that we did really well in [victories in Wellington, Sydney and Vancouver], when we sat down and analysed them, we won the contact area. As you can probably see, we've named a big side, it's a big, powerful team ... which gives me an added height advantage around ball possession and aerial skills."

Helping Tietjens in this area will be the Ioane brothers, 21-year-old Akira and 19-year-old Ioane, the Blues pair with the unique gift of being equally good at sevens as at 15s.

"Both of them are special talents," Tietjens said. "Both of them will be All Blacks - in my view they're good enough. Akira has come back and has trained particularly well. And Rieko is so superbly talented, very quick, a real game breaker."

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