Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
16 July 2016
By Keith Quinn; The omission of Kurt Baker from the 2016 New Zealand men’s Olympic 7s team was a very big surprise to me. Quite amazing in fact...
To me Baker was the most ‘watchable’ player in the squad this year. Colourful in the way he smiled as he ran about and thrilling to watch as he scored his tries and then double-thumbed the crowds in celebration. I would go so far as to say New Zealand rugby has never had a player quite like Kurt Baker.
And in the sevens squad as they travelled the globe coach Gordon Tietjens seemed to place a heavy responsibility of confidence on Baker. He even had him as captain in several games, admittedly when the regular captain was injured or unwell, but belief in him nevertheless. Baker played more games than anyone else this season. He was the regular, if slightly uneasy looking goal-kicker at many games. Baker seemed to take on all of these responsibilities with a shrug of a shoulder and enjoyment.
But something has now fractured in the confidence between Tietjens and Baker’s form and presence and the running outer back has been left out of the biggest sevens tournament of all time. As a result New Zealand to Rio without Kurt. And more than that Baker’s colourful style will be lost to New Zealand for all time as he has accepted a contract to play in future in Europe. To me that’s not sour grapes by Baker. It has just hastened his future plans, but it is very sad nevertheless.
So let me now comment on the sevens team which will go to Rio to try and fulfil the ambitions of a New Zealand rugby public who have been voraciously expecting a gold medal for years. To be fair, leaving aside the curious exclusion of Kurt Baker, the squad looks strong enough for at least a medal-winning chance. But beware New Zealand for Fiji, USA and South Africa!
SCOTT CURRY (Captain) it is great to see Scott Curry back at the helm for Rio. The powerful loose forward/runner took over the captaincy in rather strange circumstances, inasmuch as the seasoned D.J.Forbes had decided that after six years as the team boss he didn’t want the job any more. So Curry was called up by Coach Sir Gordon Tietjens...and straight away he looked like it was a role he was going to relish.
Alas, at his very first tournament as captain he dislocated his shoulder in Dubai and was ruled out of action for six months. Of course the injury halted his momentum not only as a player but as a new leader. It had been the same for Scott as a player in 2013 when he missed the Sevens World Cup in Moscow – a trip of a lifetime. That team comfortably won the gold medal. But in 2014 Scott was back, this time he won a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
Scott is a Reporoa lad so as shown in the recent Kiwi feature film ‘The Ground We Gained’ they’re a full-bodied, sensible breed from that part of New Zealand; they are level-headed, hard-working rural people by day and deeply unswerving for the game. Curry is an embodiment of this, as is All Black Sam Cane also from the same tiny place.
Curry has almost the perfect physical construction for the sevens role. He is broad-shouldered, tall, angular - skilful on attack and tough on defence. His nickname of ‘Scurry’ says a lot about his speed, maybe he had to be quick to get away from the gang of three other brothers there are in his family – most of them have had rep rugby experience.
As a teenager growing up Scott remembers his heroes were Jeff Wilson and Caleb Ralph; they embodied the best in 15s and 7s as he saw it.
Scott always had an ambition to go to the Olympic Games so for him this is a huge dream come true. Let’s hope the disappointments of 2013 do not strike this time.
LITTLE KNOWN FACTOID ABOUT CAPTAIN SCOTT CURRY: Apart from being a leader cut in almost exactly the same mould that produced Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and D.J.Forbes, Curry might be the first piano-playing New Zealand sevens player since Roy Kinikinilau used to tinker away at the keyboards so nice and quietly a decade ago.
SAM DICKSON. One night in Hong Kong this year my wife and I were hurrying to the lifts at the Marco Polo Hotel where the touring sevens teams always stay. But as we came around the corner there was a tragic sight at the lift entrance. It was Sam Dickson, the highly personable lad leaning on two walking sticks, with his head down and quietly sobbing we thought, trying to make his first faltering steps forward. Earlier that day at the Hong Kong Stadium he had hobbled away from a game the New Zealanders were playing in.
I must admit that from the commentary box my first reaction was that maybe he’d miss the next tournament round while the knee recovered. But Sam was clearly shattered and no words could relieve his obvious misery in that moment at the elevator. To us it was obvious his Olympic dream was over.
But not so. Now Sam hasrecovered and was in the team announcement photos looking calm, relaxed and as newly keen as ever. The storyline out of the NZRU is that he chose rehabilitation of the knee rather than surgery, but no doubt that simple, sugared version would not have covered the hours and hours of gruelling hard graft to make it to full fitness in time for the horrors of the Tietjens Death Camps (yes, I’ve heard them called thus!).
Now with his selection the Rio Sevens team will have the advantage of Dickson’s leaping, basketball-like ability at kick offs and his toughness at the break down and tackle around the field of play.
He is such a nice man Sam deserves the chance he obviously has worked so hard for.
D.J.FORBES This is a curious Olympic selection story – but in a very good way. D.J.Forbes as a captain of the New Zealand sevens team was for six years the captain of mostly glorious travel around the globe. In six years his teams won the overall tour and within those years there were many individual tournament victories.
But along the way Forbes found that the leadership was eventually taking its toll on his usually vigorous, driving forward play. There was even a hint, though never ever officially confirmed or denied, that his longevity might, in the end, see him miss selection for the Olympics.
Obviously if the man himself heard that whisper it galvanised him feverishly into plan B. And that was to ‘ditch’ the captaincy to concentrate on recapturing the best of his old forward play.
So we saw this year a new and revitalised Forbes. To the point where he simply could not be denied a tick for the trip. Along the way, with Scott Curry absent from some tournaments, D.J returned to the leadership on a temporary basis. However one could see he was a new man around the field.
His plan has worked, now Rio will see him at his best. The team will need him, given the selection of tough players for an obvious forward-based plan.
AKIRA IOANE The bigger of the two amazing Auckland brothers who are made for sevens play it seems. I first saw Akira crashing off the back of the scrum for Auckland Grammar School in an early year of the Land Rover 1st XV college rugby series. Unstoppable he was and it was no surprise that he went straight into the New Zealand Schools team that year.
Then I remember sitting next to his Dad, Eddie, at a reunion of the Western Samoan 1991 Rugby World Cup team before the 2011 series. We talked about Akira and he also mentioned Reiko was ‘coming along nicely too.’
And so it has proved. Akira got into the New Zealand team as a teenager and was a sensation. While you could carp and say he is not super-quick on the charge he runs with such dynamism that he is incredibly difficult to pull down. Perfect for ‘Titch’ to have in Rio.
RIEKO IOANE the younger of the pair is maybe a smidgeon smaller to the naked eye but quicker around the field. He is a top bursting, try-scoring talent and no doubt Tietjens had him near the top of the mystery ‘wish list’ that the NZRU had asked the coach to provide for his Olympic year aspirations (Surely Ardie Savea would have been the absolute top of that list). Rieko has had a very successful introduction to sevens play being in the New Zealand team which won in both Wellington and Sydney this season. Then he was whisked away with his brother to play the middle of the 15 a-side Blues Super Rugby team. That team had some kind of seemingly indispensable need to have both of the Ioane brothers, and Titch had to bite on that in this Olympic year planning.
Now the brothers are with the sevens and Tietjens again and with that the New Zealand gold medal chances are greatly increased.
GILLIES KAKA This is a young man who might be the luckiest selection. A tough call I hear you say?
But I only say it because sometimes along the many miles I have followed the New Zealand sevens team Kaka, in the halfback and sweeper role, has too often perplexed with his form swings. One day he is sharp of mind, feet and shows a sharp feel for the game. Then we cheer his rare talent.
But on another day he leaves the fans and followers wondering ‘what was that we just saw from him?’
Kaka is doing the role previously occupied for many seasons by the great Tomasi Cama and that has been a hard road to follow. I will give Kaka the benefit of the doubt here and back him to do well in Rio but he has faltered before at the very highest level. I think sometimes his belief in himself runs ahead of his best sevens senses.
TIM MIKKELSON I love the story about this guy. Years ago when Gordon Tietjens first saw him play (I think the story goes it was in a modest 15s Waikato club game) Tim was a lanky, even ungainly winger. Titch had a moment of revelation and wanted to try him as a sevens talent. But to get a note to him Tim had no address to send it too. There was no letter box, no laptop or even a cell phone number either. He was just Timmy quietly hanging about with mates in a house on the edge of town.
However, tenacious Titch got his man eventually and the rest is history. Tim has now dozens of stamps in his passports from years of travelling the globe and following the sevens’ bouncing ball. What a capacity he has for the sevens game! He never gives up at both ends of the pitch!
And like so many others in this squad he plays the game in almost total silence - or with something close to that; maybe a quick call here or there to a teammate and he is off, to link, jink or sprint away from the best of any other rival star players.
Like he did when they named him Player of the Tournament at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow.
AUGUSTINE PULU Here’s one of the players who has come from a previous role as a 15s All Black (a modest total of two caps as a halfback in 2014) but he made a significant early impression when he was called into the sevens. It was therefore such a knock for Tietjens who had surprised us with his selection. And also for Pulu when the ex-Wesley College pupil broke his arm at only his second sevens tournament event (in Sydney in February 2016). It is significant that now for the Olympics now that he has recovered that Titch has hurried him back into the front line sevens squad. I like Pulu (I wonder if they still call him ‘Mad Dog’) for his aggressive, forceful play? I reckon he’ll keep Gillies Kaka on his toes.
TEDDY STANAWAY Here’s a guy who has come out of nowhere to, I think, thoroughly deserve selection for Rio. He’s a Bay of Plenty lad originally who kind of came into several of the World Sevens tour events, the first being in 2015, but he seemed for a while to only be mooching about on the edge of being significant in the team plan. In fact he didn’t make the significant New Zealand sevens squad for the prestigious Hong Kong sevens event.
Then suddenly this year he found his feet and with some very forceful forward play and he has most obviously now fitted into the Tietjens plan of attack for Rio.
To be honest even though I was on the road with Stanaway for a good part of the world tour last year and this, I don’t think he and I have ever exchanged so much as a nod.
Nothing wrong with that of course, it’s just that this man seems a very quiet guy who clearly lets his rugby do his talking for him. Anyone who can play his way past Liam Messam, Dylan Collier and Lewis Ormond (who could have been worthy forward selections) must be very good. Which Teddy now is – in fact he is like a young D.J.Forbes more than anything else.
A couple of things about tough Teddy; on his web for a while this year he listed as his favourite thing to privately do as; ‘reading (the Kiwi kid’s book) Hairy McLairy from Donaldson’s Dairy’ to his three girls.’
You gotta love a hard man who can own up to that side of his personality.
The other out of the ordinary thing about Teddy might be his full name. I haven’t seen it listed in full anywhere yet. The very formal NZ Rugby Almanack says they have him in their records as T.Z.B.P. Stanaway.
Teddy’s many fans will hope the man lives up to his conspicuous name and brings home a gold medal to hang proudly with it.
[A late addition to the Stanaway name story; see below] He is officially;
‘Teddy Zachery Berwyn Pai Stanaway-Teo’
Here’s another excellent backline talent who has quite simply made it, this year, impossible for Tietjens to drop him from Olympic consideration. Regan is a young player who has speed and dash going forward and a very high level of elusiveness in his outer back play too. And his aggressive defence is outstanding as well.
I first saw Regan in the Hamilton Boys High School 1st XV team of 2010. He was a smooth operator in that schools backline success and has gone on via NZ Schools to becoming a regular on the sevens circuit.
Not that it was smooth going. At his debut tour event only last December (2015) he got crunched in Dubai and things looked grim for a couple of weeks. But Regan was back in time for the Wellington and Sydney events which New Zealand both won and he was an integral part. He even made into in the World Rugby Rookie of the Year final’s list.
Now Rio beckons for the Tokoroa original who will have the added thrill of celebrating his 22nd birthday just as the tournament starts.
It goes without saying we know what he’d like to bring home as a birthday present!
JOE WEBBER Mixed in with the joy of recovering from a serious injury this season and making the New Zealand Olympic team will be a sad reflection for Joe Webber of Waikato that his older sister Jordon had not made it through to the final New Zealand women’s squad. Jordon must have only narrowly missed getting a call to double the family pride.
I also first saw Joe when he was a brilliant outer back in the Hamilton Boys High School first XV in the first season of Land Rover College TV series. He was an absolute joy to watch. His place, heading for the New Zealand Schools 15 aside team could not be denied and so it proved. But more than that the sevens coach Gordon Tietjens was obviously watching too and within weeks of leaving school Joe was plying his brilliance for the sevens in Gold Coast, then Dubai and South Africa all before Christmas. Also in his team for those events were Scott Curry, Tim Mikkelson and the captain DJ Forbes. Now nearly five years later all four make up a third of the Olympic squad.
Joe has dazzling feet, is perhaps even more brilliant than Gillies Kaka in that department but in combination the two could be of great advantage to the Tietjens plans for Rio. I think the New Zealand style will be tough and uncompromising so Webber and Kaka will be the speedy game breakers to turn the ball back into a phalanx of heavyweight ball carriers who will be following the breaks.
SONNYBILL WILLIAMS In the end here is the regular 15 aside All Black from the 2015 Rugby World Cup who has made it into the Rio squad. The first conclusion to draw about Williams’ presence is that it might have been part of his NZRU contract small print. SBW just had to be included.
But to be fair to the big man he has now adapted pretty well to the sevens game. If you had been watching the sevens regularly this season you would have seen that the cross-over from 15s to 7s took time for Williams to master. Where he was clumsy and even lumbering in his early tournaments and he seemed to be rushed off the field quite early in games by Tietjens, by late in the season he was clearly a leader on the field.
And Sonnybill had become quite definitely a leader off the field. He build a popularity within the squads as they went to each city this season while at the same time he built his playing understanding of the new sevens game. To me Sonnybill has not been the quickest man in the squad, nor the best over the ball at the breakdown, not the best catcher of the ball from the air, so vital in sevens, but overall his commitment to the game and the squad made his inclusion in the end a must for Tietjens. Plus, there is always the advantage of his off-loading capability so famous around the world. In conclusion it will be of some comfort to the hopes of the New Zealand team’s Rio hopes that SBW is close by.
He lived most of his life in the far flung East Coast of the North Island but grew to be honoured all over the rugby world.
Headquarters for the game of rugby in Samoa. Apia Park is a ground with a colourful past. Just as Twickenham in London was once a market garden, and cabbages were grown at Lancaster Park in Christchurch during World War I, Apia Park in the capital city of Samoa was once a horse racing track and a golf course.
Situated close to the city, the ground was originally owned by the occupying German Government. The first horse racing was held on Kaiser Wilhelm II’s birthday in 1910. Later, Chinese, Melanesian and Samoan labourers ploughed the swampy land, aided by oxen-drawn carts. They levelled an inner field and plans for rugby were drawn up. The locals did not worry that a large, shady tree was left intact on what was to be inside the field of play.
Horse racing died out in 1939. The first rugby game on the park was in 1924 when an Apia Selection played a Pago Pago Naval XV. Apia won 33-0. During the same year a Fijian team on its way to play Tonga stopped in Apia. Its two games against the locals were split one win each. It is not recorded how the teams coped with playing around the tree!
These days the rebuilt ground, with its superb backdrop of palm trees and other native flora and fauna, must be one of the prettiest in the world.
Apia Park has always been a highly significant place for sport in Samoa. In 1991 before the advent of a home TV network, crowds used to come to the ground and sit for hours overnight waiting to watch on an imported giant TV screen the matches of (Western) Samoa at the World Cup in Britain.
For years the field was also used as a golf course, but in 1975 the inherent dangers of people walking near such a course led them to shift to a new venue, at the Royal Samoan Golf Club. Only then for the first time could rugby truly claim the grounds.
In 2007, Apia Park was one of the main venues for the 2007 Pacific Games. In 2015 it will play host many events at the Youth Commonwealth Games, the opening and closing ceremonies. It will also host the All Blacks from New Zealand for a much anticipated game against Manu Samoa. The ground has a capacity of 15,000.
Why was the kickoff for the Japan v Wales in Cardiff in 1983 delayed for 15 minutes?