IRB Sevens Series
Tietjens bemoans panic after narrow defeat
February 8, 2009
New Zealand reflect on their narrow defeat to England in the final of the Wellington 7s © Getty Images
In nearly 15 years of coaching the New Zealand 7s team, Gordon Tietjens has rarely tasted disappointment to match the opening and closing minutes of the Wellington tournament that ended in agonising defeat.
England lifted their first Wellington crown with a thrilling 19-17 defeat of Tietjens' injured and ill-disciplined men, hitting the front for the first time with seconds remaining on the clock. Isoa Damudamu crossed to tie the scores and Ben Gollings converted to break the hearts of a New Zealand side who struggled for their best over both days yet somehow looked like claiming a fifth crown in the 10th year of the colourful Westpac Stadium event.
It at least sets up a three-way dogfight at the top of the International Rugby Board series after three of eight rounds, with victors at the first two tournaments South Africa still narrowly out in front. Round four is in San Diego this weekend and it could be good thing for some of the New Zealand players to hit the field again so soon as last night's near-miss would otherwise linger like a bad odour.
Most culpable is veteran halfback Tomasi Cama, who threw punches at Rob Vickerman with two minutes remaining and New Zealand 17-12 up. Both players were sinbinned but the home side's defence that had been staunch throughout the second day couldn't adjust to the late loss of their sweeper.
What stung Tietjens most about Cama's indiscretion was that he was sent off in the opening minutes of their first pool game against Wales for punching. New Zealand lost that opener 28-17 -- Tietjens describing it as the worst starting performance he had overseen -- and they spent the rest of the tournament on a knife-edge.
Despite incurring a relatively light one-game ban, diminutive playmaker Cama didn't learn his lesson. "It is disappointing from one of the experienced players, and it is pretty hard to defend when you've got six players," Tietjens told NZPA.
"It's disappointing when you lose a man to the sinbin for a punching offence in the last two minutes of the game. (The referee's decision) was obviously justified."
Tietjens would have been just as rocked when his other experienced Manawatu-based Fijian, Lote Raikabula, threw a looping intercept pass early in the second half to let England close the margin after leading 17-5 at halftime.
"The guys worked very very hard but they panicked when it mattered and that came back to haunt them really," Tietjens said. New Zealand should have closed out victory when, with 20 seconds remaining, replacement Tim Mikkelson raced 50m into England territory.
However, the inexperienced sevens exponent was tackled as he sought support and turned possession over rather than simply kicking or running the ball into touch.
"That's all in hindsight. I'm proud of the way the guys bounced back from that first game against Wales. Some of the defence today was brilliant (especially) against England. To turn that around and make the mistakes that we did in the second half, for the players I'm gutted."
New Zealand lacked a game-breaker in the mould of last year's sensation Victor Vito, with speedster Viliame Waqaseduadua below par following a blow to the head against Wales. Edwin Cocker broke his leg in the gutsy 7-0 quarterfinal defeat of South Africa while Nafi Tuitavake missed the final after a knock in the grinding 10-7 semifinal win over Argentina.
Captain DJ Forbes played the second day in pain caused by a hairline fracture to his lower leg. The mood was jubilant in the England shed, following a brilliant second day which featured a 31-10 thrashing of Fiji in the quarters and 24-0 semifinal whitewash of Kenya. Their only loss was in pool play, to Argentina.
The stars were Fijian-born Damudamu and pacy captain Ollie Phillips, who topped the tournament tryscoring list with seven. Veteran Gollings rated their triumph among his career highlights.
"We've won in Hong Kong four times, that was pretty incredible. But this has got away from me for eight years, it's one of the biggest tournaments. I'm absolutely ecstatic."
England coach Ben Ryan believed his side would be a genuine force for the remainder of the series and at next month's World Cup in Dubai. "We've worked really hard, we've had consistency in our players, we're fit and we've got a lot of belief," he said. "If we can win here, we've got a pretty good chance everywhere else that we play."
Tietjens will fly to San Diego tomorrow night with a patched-up side for this weekend's tournament but his greater concern may be fielding a strong squad for their following event -- the World Cup in Dubai in early March. Bay of Plenty playmaker Nigel Hunt returns from injury himself to replace Tomasi Cama, who suffered knee damage, while Counties Manukau forward Chad Tuoro comes in for Edwin Cocker.
Experienced forward Cocker broke his ankle against South Africa yesterday and will be out for at least six weeks. Without his size, New Zealand will struggle to impose the physicality that was a hallmark of their dominance last season.
"Edwin Cocker would have been crucial for my forwards going over to the World Cup," was Tietjens' blunt assessment.
Defying pain, Forbes played all three games yesterday in a courageous show of leadership. "There's a fair amount of pain. I'm quite a religious man so I look to the man up above to push me through," Forbes told NZPA. "It could be a slight fracture but these are the games you live to play for and you find a way to push through it I guess. When I saw the boys giving their guts, all I could do was try my best."
Tietjens can also select one player from each of the New Zealand Super 14 teams to play at the World Cup but must win agreement from those players and their franchises.
Squad: DJ Forbes (captain), Paul Grant, Nigel Hunt, Zar Lawrence, Tim Nanai Williams, Tim Mikkelson, Lote Raikabula, Save Tokula, Nafi Tuitavake, Chad Tuoro, Tu Umaga Marshall, Viliame Waqaseduadua
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