Tietjens targets Olympics with Samoa



Samoa 7s Head Coach Gordon Tietjens has his sights firmly set on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as he builds his team for the Oceania qualifying tournament.

“My primary goal is to get Samoa to next year’s Olympics,” the New Zealand coaching legend told Teivovo Rugby. “We’ve got to go to the Oceania 7s with a real view of qualifying – to beat Tonga, beat Australia, and all the Pacific island teams.”

Olympic qualification for the Samoans would be massive, especially as they missed out on the 2016 Rio Olympics after being pipped 22-19 by Spain in the final match of the Final Qualifying Tournament in Monaco.

And according to then-World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset, the inclusion of Rugby 7s in the Olympics was “in no small way down to Gordon Tietjens. Through his knowledge, passion, and expertise, he has driven the standards towards what we now celebrate as a truly global game of sevens.” Credit indeed.

After an indifferent start to the season, Samoa are now progressing into the Cup Quarter-finals on a more regular basis – five times in the past six tournaments, including in Paris.

“When I started in 2017, Samoa were 13th on the World Series. This is my second full year with them and it’s about building consistency; that’s the real key for us. I can just see it starting to come where we’re pushing the bigger teams. But it’s the lesser teams – even though 7s is really competitive – that you’ve got to get up for and have to beat, not just pick yourself up when you play Fiji or New Zealand.”

“For London and Paris, I brought in a few new young boys – we can’t be relegated, we’re sitting in sixth place and we can’t really get fifth because England are just a bit too far ahead of us. We obviously want to do well in the tournaments but not at all costs because I still want to develop some players and give them that opportunity out here.”
After 22 years of coaching New Zealand, Tietjens is enjoying his new environment, but admits that it comes with very different challenges.
“From New Zealand with all those expectations on you, I’m going to a completely different animal here. I’m looking to turn Samoa into a high-performance team.”

“We’re working on areas such as work ethic, nutrition, everything that makes a professional rugby team. It’s enjoyable but it’s a massive challenge. We need to build more depth on the island.”

The coach says he balances his time between living in New Zealand though spending most of his time in Samoa. “I still live in New Zealand and I have an assistant coach on the island in Stephen Betham, who coached Samoa to the World 7s Series title in 2010. Stephen looks after everything when I’m not there, and of course I’m with them for two weeks before each leg of the Series to prepare them, test them, and work with them. Then we go on tour so I’m effectively with them for more than a month at a time.”

“I go back home for 10 days or so before reassembling with them for the next set of tournaments. I find it’s quite healthy to have that break, and to have another voice rather than me just hammering them all the time – it’s great to have Stephen’s perspective.”

As expected, Tietjens sees the biggest challenge as the lack of resources – especially compared to what he was used to working with at the New Zealand Rugby Union.

“We fly in just four days before a tournament and we see teams that have come over early and have acclimatised. Then you look at teams with nutritionists and other expertise, the number of physios. On the island if anyone gets a knock or an injury we have to fly them to New Zealand to get a scan because we don’t have the scanning facilities in Samoa to get confirmation of what that injury is.”

“Sevens rugby is ruthless now, it’s the physicality – they are explosive athletes, and you need to define pretty quickly what that injury is so you can put rehab protocols in place.”

The winning coach of no fewer than 12 World 7s Series titles, two Rugby World Cup 7s and four Commonwealth Games titles, explained how the game of 7s has changed in recent years.

“A few years ago when Samoa had a stronger side, there wasn’t the amount of analysis done on sevens rugby. I’ve seen it evolve as I was part of it coming through in 1994 with the All Blacks, and it’s changed in a huge way.

What I’ve found in Samoa, the biggest challenge playing-wise is not adapting to the speed of the game. They will always have the physicality, but the rugby played in Samoa at village level and your province in the Super 9 competition is certainly a lot slower.”

“At the World Series level, the pace of the game is so much quicker and you can only compete by being conditioned. The game of 7s is controlled by conditioning – and you can’t hide from that. I certainly push the players particularly hard.

The game we played against England at the London 7s went down to extra-time and then another six minutes. You just have to hang in there; and we hung in and came out of it on top. Fitness was the only reason we stayed in there, I’m sure of that.”

What Tietjens is not short of is moral support.

“I get 200% support for the 7s team. The Prime Minister is fantastic, he’s the chairman of the board – the 7s team is all they really have because most of the Manu Samoa 15s players are offshore. Every time we play, the country stops.”

As for his thoughts on the current Fiji side, he thinks Gareth Baber’s doing a grand job. “It’s always a challenge. There are so many good players over there, I think the selection must be his biggest headache – who do you pick? Who don’t you pick? I could always see that. I love the Fijian people; I love the team.”

“We played Fiji at the London 7s and it went down to the wire. But I always tell my team ‘We shouldn’t try to play like the Fijians, we are Samoan.’ That’s a real key; if we try and play like the Fijians they will slaughter us. So we have to play our game, usually with a bit more structure and one we can adapt to, particularly for the young players coming in.”

By Jeremy Duxbury

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