Declan from nowhere makes his mark

Getty Images     07 Feb 2011     Getty Images

But after setting the NZI Sevens tournament alight and helping New Zealand win their fifth title in Wellington, the 20-year-old from Waikato has become a success story virtually overnight.

His blistering pace and dancing feet helped him to 10 tries over the two days at Westpac Stadium, including a hat-trick in the final where New Zealand defeated England 29-14 to take the coveted silverware.

He topped the try-scoring and points tally for the tournament and lifted his number of tries in the HSBC World Sevens Series to 17.

The man he has to thank for all his newfound success is New Zealand Sevens coach Gordon Tietjens, who has once again unearthed a couple of superstars in the making in O'Donnell and his Waikato team-mate Frank Halai.

"I identified him [O'Donnell] probably eight or nine weeks ago playing in a club tournament at Te Rapa," Tietjens said. "When I took a young team to a tournament on the Gold Coast he was a reserve player and initially wasn't playing. But I could just see that he had these little glimpses.

"Obviously he's worked really hard getting fit and stronger and faster and he's been through a difficult time lately as well [after being involved in a brawl in a Hamilton bar] but he's put that all behind him.

"A lot of people know who Declan O'Donnell is now. Victor Vito was the same a couple of years ago.

"People are going to walk away and say 'Who is this Declan O'Donnell? Who is this Frank Halai?' If they continue like they are they won't be in the New Zealand Sevens team for very long."

O'Donnell certainly has eyes on Super rugby contract as a long-term goal but will be hoping to step up to full Waikato honours once the sevens series is over after playing in the Mooloos development side last year.

"We'll see if I get any more offers but probably Waikato. I'm hoping to make a [Super rugby] wider training squad next year so hopefully that works out."

The more immediate focus though is the fourth leg of the Sevens series in Las Vegas this weekend.

New Zealand and England top the standings on 64 points after three rounds but all the leading teams will have to overcome a difficult schedule that will see them forced to play four matches, including Cup quarter-finals, on day one.

American broadcasters NBC have secured a lucrative deal to screen matches live as rugby looks to get a greater foothold in the sporting market, particularly now sevens has Olympic status, and want the important matches played in prime time.

That is also the reasoning behind the break in tradition which will see the Cup final played ahead of the Bowl, Shield and Plate finals.

Tietjens is certainly unimpressed that player welfare has not been taken into account.

"It's quite outrageous. You've got to look at player welfare," he said.

"There are a lot of players that are going to go from this tournament very, very sore and then to start with four games, including a quarter-final, is pretty tough work."

It also looks likely New Zealand will be without captain DJ Forbes for the tournament after he suffered a hamstring injury early in Saturday night's final against England.

"It's very unusual for DJ to come off the field," said the New Zealand coach. "He's played on through a lot of hard knocks and injuries. He's that type of person. So for him to try and get going and not be able to suggest it's something pretty serious."