DUBAI // Gordon Tietjens, the highly-decorated New Zealand coach, has been able to call on an old ally as he plots a return to the top of the world sevens rankings, starting this weekend in Dubai. Onosai Tololima-Auva'a was a key member of the New Zealand side which won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
The 24-year-old loose-forward was then lost from the short form of the game after being snapped up by the Auckland Blues Super 14 franchise. However, he lost his contract to play in the Southern hemisphere's top 15-a-side competition in the summer - much to the delight of Tietjens - who is glad to welcome him back into the sevens fold. "He hasn't played sevens for a long time and isn't conditioned to it having played in Super 14," said the coach.
"Having not been selected for Super 14 he really wanted to get back into sevens. It is about getting back into a different mindset, coming from 15s to sevens rugby. He is obviously a very talented rugby player and every game we play it is all coming back to him." For once, the New Zealanders will start the series without the burden of being regarded as the favourites. They gave up their series crown for just the second time in the competition's history to South Africa last year, losing to England in the semi-finals as injuries and poor form took their toll.
"We will hopefully go about our business here in Dubai, without having that pressure of being the No 1, the unbeaten team who has won it year after year after year," added Tietjens. "But wearing that All Black sevens jersey, you still have a lot of pressure on you to perform. "We had a disappointing year last year. I don't hide the secret we were disappointed, but we have some wonderful players here with some real experience.
"If we want to win this world series we have to start well in these first two tournaments. I think the teams who do that will be the ones who are the best prepared. "We are probably a little bit underdone at the moment, but we have worked hard in training and know that every game we play at the final is going to be treated like a final for us. We are probably at 75 or 80 per cent. "If these players can really play to their potential and we gel together as a team - that is going to be the real key, gelling together as fast as we possibly can - we can certainly push very close for this tournament."
Paul Treu, the coach of the defending Dubai and world series champions, South Africa, insists his side can cope with the pressure after assuming New Zealand's mantle as favourites. "To win the title is one thing, to defend it an even tougher task," said Treu. "But that's why we have been working so hard this year. "We know we are going to be the target for a number of other teams and we will have to be at our best if we want to defend our title.
"Last season we learned to cope with the pressure because after the Dubai tournament, we were the No 1 team and we kept that No 1 spot right up until the last tournament in Scotland. "They have learned how to deal with the pressure and coming into this tournament the guys know we haven't achieved anything yet. "We haven't won any IRB awards, we haven't won any SA Rugby awards, so there must be something that we haven't done well."