Rugby: All Blacks 7s skipper relying on World Cup winners

All Blacks sevens captain Tim Mikkelson believes his side, who play in Singapore next month, face pressure to deliver gold in Rio.
All Blacks sevens captain Tim Mikkelson believes his side, who play in Singapore next month, face pressure to deliver gold in Rio. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The jersey is iconic, and when a New Zealand rugby player puts it on, he assumes the immense expectation to succeed that comes with being an All Black.

It is no different whether he is playing for the Rugby World Cup-winning 15s team, or their sevens brethren, who have been labelled the gold-medal favourites ahead of the sport's Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Still, the All Blacks sevens captain Tim Mikkelson wears the jersey with confidence, knowing his team will step up come the Rio Games.

The 29-year-old told The Straits Times in a phone interview on Thursday: "There is definite pressure for us to win the gold medal in Rio but we are just taking every tournament one at a time.

"For us, it's important to focus on the process and build up towards the Olympics."

Mikkelson, who was in the All Blacks side that won the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens, will be able to count on several of his team-mates in their bid for glory.

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He said: "I have a lot of good leaders around me, such as D.J. Forbes and Liam Messam, who were both captains before. It's a very good group around me and there are a lot of guys putting in the hard work behind the scenes.

"Our coach Gordon Tietjens is also a firm believer of fitness and he feels that we must be one of the fittest in Rio to stand a chance of winning gold."

With the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Messam - members of last year's triumphant Rugby World Cup squad - also part of the sevens squad, Mikkelson has plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

He said: "They can create great openings by drawing defenders in, giving us wide players a chance to score. These guys are also really strong so they can help us in the sevens.

"Sonny Bill has been training hard behind the scenes. We all know he likes to use the ball and is full of great offloads. He just needs to keep playing and get used to the sevens game and I can't see why he won't do well for us this year."

Nevertheless, the former Waikato Rugby Union player is wary of threats to their hunt for gold.

"The United States are the dark horses. Any team with that much speed on their side will definitely have a shot at the medals," he said.

"Samoa and Tonga always have guys who are tough and fast, so we can't rule them out. England will be unpredictable as they have a lot of new players and are rebuilding their team. We beat them in the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens but I think they will be in the mix."

The All Blacks sevens will travel to Hong Kong for the next leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series from April 8-10, before taking part in the April 16-17 Singapore Sevens at the National Stadium.

They have won three of the last four World Series legs.

With four more legs to go, they are third in the standings on 104 points, with South Africa second on 105 points and defending champions Fiji a further point ahead in first place.

"The sevens circuit is pretty close these days and any team on their day can win a tournament," Mikkelson said. "We have to treat every game like a final and hopefully we will be able to perform well in the next two legs.

"South Africa and Fiji are two of the most consistent teams and they have been playing well in every tournament. Australia are also coming up and have reached two finals in the last three legs so we cannot rule them out.

"The key is to start well in Hong Kong and hopefully keep the momentum going in Singapore. We are in the right direction and just have to maintain our consistency."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'All Blacks 7s skipper relying on World Cup winners'. Print Edition | Subscribe