Gordon Tietjens, rugby sevens coach extraordinaire, has seen it all during his decade-plus at the helm of the New Zealand team. He has coached successfully on stages as far apart as Dubai and Wellington, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. But Tietjens was leaping about like a schoolboy at the end of the thrilling Commonwealth Games final today. Make no mistake, this was a special victory. Not only did it maintain New Zealand’s perfect record in Commonwealth Games sevens – they’ve won every tournament since the first, in 1998, always with Tietjens as coach – but they had to show a lot of class and fight to do it. The New Zealanders came back from 17-7 well into the second half of their final against Australia to rattle in three tries for a 24-17 win. What’s more this was no ordinary Australian team.
They are full of talented, quick players who ooze flair. The Australians were far too good for South Africa in their semi-final. Tietjens knew what a threat they presented. New Zealand were brilliantly led by DJ Forbes, a quiet, dignified leader who lets his play do the talking for him. One of Forbes’ offloads in the first half set up a try and he was a constant menace to the Australians. It was obvious how much the New Zealand players looked to Forbes. The man from Manukau gives them confidence and security, and in that he reminds me of Graham Mourie in the good old days. I liked the way he spoke about tradition beforehand, and about living up to the legacy created by previous New Zealand games sevens teams. Tietjens took an almighty risk in choosing four All Blacks for his sevens team in Delhi. What shape would they be when they got here? Would they be heavy or sleek?
The Tietjens gamble paid handsome dividends because the player of the final was Ben Smith, who went on the end-of-year tour of the northern hemisphere last year. Smith wore headgear throughout that tour. Today was a chance to see what he actually looks like. He can certainly play, that we know. Speaking of looks, I do like the Forbes tradition of shaving for finals day. He wears a long beard but always appears for the final clean-shaven, ready to look his best with a gold medal around his neck.
This was the most festive, party atmosphere of any event in Delhi, even more than the swimming finals and the cycling at the velodrome. Generally there have been very few supporters of the tourist variety at the sports events. They’ve all been scared off by months of talk about security and health problems. But wherever there’s rugby, there are New Zealanders, and there was a good smattering of supporters there today. The fans were colourful, lively and in good voice.
Their attitude was infectious, and it rubbed off on the players who turned on a brilliant display. The sevens players did New Zealand proud, the way they mingled with the fans afterwards. They were more than happy to sign autographs, pose for endless photos, and chat to fans and were simply a great advertisement for rugby. They did the haka twice, as is their end-of-tournament tradition. It was rapturously received, as ever.
We hear a lot these days about the All Blacks being taciturn and inaccessible. Well, the sevens players went a long way to changing that image. New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew looked like a Cheshire cat as he shook hands with the players and chatted with Tietjens afterwards. I get the impression that sevens’ inclusion in the Olympics has sharpened the focus on that version of the game considerably, and that now results like the win in Delhi carry that much more meaning. Sevens doesn’t make its Olympic debut until Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Let’s hope Tietjens is still on board then. He’s the master with the Midas touch.