DUBAI // Gordon Tietjens, the illustrious New Zealand sevens coach, probably choked on his fat-free, no salt, shredded wheat when he discovered the dietary regime which fuelled Michael Phelps's greatness. In an average day, the American swimmer fits training around the consumption of 12,000 calories.
Breakfast typically consists of three fried-egg sandwiches, accompanied by cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise, a five-egg omelette, two cups of coffee, a bowl of porridge, three chocolate-chip pancakes, and three slices of French toast. Such gluttony was good enough to earn him eight gold medals at last year's Beijing Olympics. Yet "The Breakfast of Champions" is not the formula for all sports.
The diet New Zealand's sevens players are weaned on is "basically rabbit food," according to their captain, DJ Forbes. It may have played a part in three successive Commonwealth Games gold medals, as well as eight world series titles from nine attempts, but it has not won Tietjens much love from his players over the years. Christian Cullen, the All Blacks great who is still widely revered in the world game for his try-scoring exploits in the sevens and 15s codes, has not forgotten what it was like to play for the food dictator.
"You can't drink coke - he is always watching you, man," said Cullen, now safely retired and able to eat what he likes, when he likes. "It's always good to have a coke when you are having dinner. That is where I learnt about rugby and training and nutrition - through Titch. "There was no steak, no coke, no chips, it was serious business. But when you are playing in heat like this you need all the little advantages you can get."
There were ways around the starvation. "Whenever you went to Eric Rush's room he would pull out a drawer, and he would have a secret stash of lollies," he added. "If Titch ever found out, man, the next day at training ... I wish I'd never eaten those chips." For all the pain he dished out, Cullen still credits Tietjens with being the major influence on his career. The coaching alchemist picked him out of relative obscurity to play for his sevens team.
It has become the established route to the top of the game for many All Blacks in the recent past. With an unrivalled eye for talent, combined with a shrewd sense of how to get the most from that potential, Tietjens has a better strike-rate than any academy. "I loved it. It was tough, but it was awesome," added Cullen, 33, whose 46 Test tries are the second highest by an All Black, behind Doug Howlett.
"I have always loved sevens. I always said if it had paid the bills, I would have just played sevens. Gordon Tietjens picked me out when I was a young fellow. "I was playing for Manawatu in the national competition in New Zealand. "Our team wasn't any good, but he must have seen something in me, and gave me a chance. "I went to Hong Kong with him in 1995 and only played one game. That was it. We had Jonah Lomu, Eric Rush, all the big names.
"He took me over there for a bit of experience and to see what it is all about. "He invited me back in 1996, and that was my big year." Cullen flourished, and was never seen again by Tietjens. The search for the next star began again, as it does at the start of every new campaign. Tietjens will continue his search for a second Melrose Cup at 11am today, when his latest crop take on the part-timers from the Arabian Gulf on Pitch Two at The Sevens.
"Every year is a challenge for him because every year he loses players," said Cullen. "That is his gift, being able to pick young guys out, bring them to tournaments and give them a shot. Usually most of them get picked up by Super 14 teams, and he has to start again - but I think that is what he loves. "He brings the team together and they are always competitive, even though he loses two or three of his big names every year."