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Sevens on the road to Rio

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Sportal.co.nz     14 Oct 2012     Getty Images

The HSBC International Rugby Board World Sevens Series is nothing new.

It has been part of rugby union's calendar since 1999 at venues like Dubai, Las Vegas, London, Wellington and Australia's Gold Coast, where the action begins on Saturday.

But the next four years are huge for Sevens, a period that culminates with the Rio Olympics but also includes next year's World Cup in Moscow.

New Zealand continue to dominate the sport, winning their 10th series title last season and heading into another campaign with principal rivals Fiji, South Africa, Samoa and England still chasing them.

Gordon Tietjens has been the driving force behind New Zealand's sustained success, a Sevens coach par excellence who understands the sport better than most and knows what it takes to consistently win tournaments.

During his tenure, New Zealand boast a staggering world series success-rate of 86 percent, having won 536 from 621 games they have played.

"Consistency and performance are what it takes to win the series," he said. "You have to be there or thereabouts at every tournament you go to.

"In the last series we won three of nine tournaments and Fiji won three of nine tournaments as well, but because we were more consistent and reached more semi-finals we won the series.

"You just can't afford to have a bad tournament."

More than half a million spectators worldwide watched the 2011-12 IRB Series, while a new promotion and relegation system gives emerging sevens nations a chance to rub shoulders with the elite.

"Sevens is now an Olympic sport, so it's great that everyone has the opportunity to play at the highest level," Tietjens, 56, added.

"I was there in Hong Kong last season when Spain, Portugal and Canada were promoted and qualified for the series this year. It was fantastic to see the pleasure and passion on the faces of those players when they qualified.

"In sevens there really isn't an easy game - anybody can beat you on their day.

"The 15-a-side game is pretty consistent in terms of the bigger teams, but the new promotion and relegation system really suits the emerging nations playing sevens rugby."

England World Cup winner Jason Robinson, an HSBC Sevens ambassador, believes the sport's Olympic status will give it a new-found standing.

"It will make it even more exciting to watch," Robinson said.

"Sevens is the raw form of rugby. Players learn how to use the space around them, and that in turn allows them to express themselves.

"Players with good feet and ball in hand who attack the open spaces really shine, and that gets the crowd going.

"Consistency is crucial. If you are not on form you will get beaten.

"There are no 3-3 draws in the world series, and the players on the circuit are some of the fittest athletes around. They are all sprinters these days.

"With the unpredictability of the series, never knowing who you will be playing from tournament to tournament, you have to always be on your A game."

England, Wales and Scotland will all be in action this weekend, with England drawn alongside Samoa, Kenya and Spain, Wales in with Argentina, France and Portugal, while Scotland must tackle Fiji, Australia and Tonga.

"Competition is high for selection, and it has been well-documented how fit and strong our squad are," said England head coach Ben Ryan, who has 19 full-time sevens players to select from.

"But it won't win you tournaments if you get out there, look great in the tight shirts and then run around without a clue.

"The fitness, speed and sheer athleticism of our players often gets top billing, but it only tells a small part of our story.

"Our professional players these days, to be the best, need to get their conditioning and their nutrition spot-on. They won't be seen rolling out of late-night bars or burger joints because, frankly, they no longer live that lifestyle.

"All the stuff we do to get them in great shape comes from doing the simple things well - measuring and managing them and understanding individual nuances through data and experience.

"The difference in sides winning or losing at the very top of the international game comes down to execution if their strategy is right.

"We have a style we have worked hard on and that needs to be executed against all the teams consistently to bring us success.

"It is my job to make sure the way we approach the game stands up to whatever is thrown at it and the players all understand how to play it. It's a great challenge."