Singapore Rugby Sevens 2016

NZ sevens coach dictates the path to ultimate effort

Gordon Tietjens was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in 2012 and knighted the next year.
Gordon Tietjens was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in 2012 and knighted the next year.

Twenty-two years of coaching philosophy by Gordon Tietjens is distilled into three words.

Empty. The. Tank.

It is a mantra that has moulded New Zealand into a rugby sevens juggernaut that has won every major title since he took charge as coach in 1994.

The 60-year-old's training sessions are legendary for their physical intensity - they were nicknamed "death" by former All Black Eric Rush - and surpassed only by Tietjens' unyielding demands.

"I'll always pick a player who'll empty the tank for me," Tietjens - or Titch as he is known - told The Sunday Times. "You could have a player who's so skilful but not prepared to put the work in. Those players don't win you tournaments. As a coach you don't know what you'll get out of them and those guys will let you down.

"I challenge them mentally and that's where I become ruthless because mental toughness is attitude and to me that's one of the key reasons why we've been successful over the years."

All-conquering would be equally appropriate to describe his All Blacks Sevens. They have won two sevens World Cups, four Commonwealth Games golds and 12 World Rugby Sevens Series championships.

Prior to the ongoing Singapore leg of the series, the All Blacks played 825 matches, won 700, drew six and lost 119 for an incredible strike rate of 85 per cent across almost 17 seasons stretching back to 1999.

Tietjens, who was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in 2012 and knighted a year later, does not just create dynasties, he has to rebuild as well. While the sevens team is feted back home, it also serves as a farm system for the 15-a-side union squad.

Among the 46 eventually drafted into the 15s who began their careers under him are All Blacks stars Christian Cullen, Julian Savea, Joe Rokocoko and a certain Jonah Lomu, who arrived as a raw 18-year-old.

Tietjens recalled: "He had all the skill sets to become a great player. Did he have the work ethic, the character? The character, certainly. Initially the work ethic possibly not, because he got right through his schooling years on his natural talent...

"But Jonah would never give up... he might not have had the fitness levels that I desired as a coach but he always gave whatever he had in the tank."

That was all Tietjens ever wanted, said assistant coach Damian Karauna, who played under Tietjens in 1996. Karauna said: "He's a very hard taskmaster and has high expectations, be it conditioning or nutrition.

"Before the boys start their training in the mornings, we're there at 6am doing our own training and Titch is usually the first one out."

Tietjens grew up in a railway settlement in Rotorua, one of four kids to strict parents who instilled an iron discipline in their children. His first memory of rugby was age five, barefoot and in winter.

He was a full-back at Rotorua Boys' High School - whose Latin motto translates as "through adversity to the stars" - before going on to represent New Zealand at the 1983 Hong Kong Sevens.

He retired in 1987 and took up coaching. He won his first sevens tournament, the Melrose Sevens, in Scotland in 1992. The Melrose Rugby Club is also the spiritual home of sevens rugby.

While he remains non-committal about his future with the All Blacks after this year, the return of rugby to the Olympics and the pursuit of a gold medal could sway his decision. He said: "I might stop after Rio or I might want to go for another in 2020. I still feel like I have a lot to contribute to the game."

Being selected by Tietjens was a great honour but also a daunting proposition, said centre Kurt Baker, who joined the side in 2008. He said: "You hear all the stories so there's a bit of intimidation. I think he loves it, for the new boys especially. It's what gets them running up and down the field."

Age has mellowed Tietjens - but only just, Karauna said with a grin. "The backbone is still there, the discipline still there. I'm 40 years old and I'm not allowed to have an ice cream."

I am no dictator, protests Tietjens with a wry smile.

Maybe not. But his pursuit of excellence is certainly all-consuming. And music to Titch's ears.

Jonathan Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'NZ sevens coach dictates the path to ultimate effort'. Subscribe