x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ai'i still has what it takes to play for New Zealand

Former rugby sevens Player of the Year is a guest for Racing Club of Lagos at Dubai Sevens.

Orene Ai'i of Racing Club of Lagos during the Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Orene Ai'i of Racing Club of Lagos during the Dubai Rugby Sevens.

DUBAI // Gordon Tietjens, the New Zealand coach, says the door is open to a return for Orene Ai'i, who is regarded as one of the finest players ever to play the short-form - seven years after he left the world circuit.

The 2005 world sevens Player of the Year is back in Dubai this weekend, playing third-tier rugby as a guest for the Nigerian side Racing Club of Lagos.

On the evidence of their opening pool match against Almaty in the International Open last night, he has lost little of the old panache.

He played three no-look, round-the-back passes, and was even kicking touchline conversions both left and right-footed in the 24-7 victory.

His form this weekend is unlikely to go unnoticed within the New Zealand hierarchy, who are aware of his interest in making a belated comeback to top-flight sevens.

"Orene Ai'i is an outstanding rugby player," said Tietjens, whose All Blacks sevens side begin their campaign against Wales at 10.36am today.

"Watching him play ITM Cup in New Zealand, he still has all the talent and skill sets. He is a special player, looks after himself, and knows the game of sevens inside out.

"He is throwing a few hints out there and he may [attempt to earn selection]. He may turn up in Queenstown [trials] and be very, very good - you never say never.

"He does offer a huge array of skills that can be complementary to my sevens team."

The player himself, who has been training with Auckland's sevens side, is intent on pressing his claims for a recall at national trials in New Zealand.

He initially left after being offered terms to play XVs rugby in Japan, having made his name on the sevens circuit, then went on to play for Toulon in France.

Ai'i, who would provide New Zealand with an alternative to Tomasi Cama, who remains one of the leading creative forces in the game, said a return to Pitch One duty at next year's Sevens should not be ruled out.

"I have missed it," the 33-year-old playmaker said last night. "To be back playing it with these boys, I have really got that buzz back again.

"I have no regrets at leaving when I did. I left on a high note, gave my family the chance to see the world, and we saw the financial benefits of it, too. But watch this space."

pradley@thenational.ae