NZ women's Sevens plot bid for glory
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In the coastal town of Mount Maunganui, New Zealand’s women’s Sevens coach Sean Horan has been hatching plans for his side’s continued success.
The squad has been in camp preparing for the next round of the IRB Women's Sevens World Series in Guangzhou, China, on Saturday and Sunday (March 30-31).
The Kiwis lead the table after two rounds, but Horan sees success now as a stepping stone on the trail to the Olympics.
“That’s what we’re constantly saying to the players – from Fiji, to Dubai, to Houston,” says Horan. “It’s all about Rio to be honest.”
New Zealand may not yet have a full-time squad, but the training base on the country’s north island offers the chance for solid preparation. The beachside location is ideal for recovery sessions, while the Blake Park training ground is five minutes away.
“Other competing nations have had about a year or two longer than us and to be fair a lot more finance – but we’re confident in what we are building,” says the former Bay of Plenty coach.
Horan aims to develop a squad to handle the intensity of an Olympic campaign, and while the Kiwis will be doing their utmost to repeat their Dubai win in China, the long-term goal is always in mind.
Olympics a game-changer
“Of course we always want to perform well,” he says, “but we’re building depth - we want to be able to get a core group of players.”
Olivia Bird of Canterbury and Kristina Sue of Manawatu have been introduced to the squad for China, while Tyla Nathan-Wong and Ruby Tui, who did not travel to Houston, return. Taranaki’s Lauren Burgess is also a late addition, the 27-year-old replacing Manawatu’s Shakira Baker, who failed to achieve a full medical clearance.
Despite New Zealand’s enviable rugby heritage, Horan knows they cannot rest on their laurels given the Sevens strides made by their rivals.
“We’re a rugby country, so a lot of the girls know rugby, and it’s a bit of a psyche thing - we’re only 4½ million people [but very competitive per capita] – but a lot of the girls are very new to rugby.”
Australian legend George Gregan recently suggested the men’s winner of the 2016 Olympic gold could come from a non-traditional rugby country, and Horan suggests that applies equally to the women’s gold.
“I could probably agree with that. It’s going to be highly competitive because it’s the Olympics,” says Horan. “Look at what China did in swimming a few years ago. When nations focus on a sport anything can happen.”
Level playing field
New Zealand itself has benefited from an influx of players from other sports who signed up for its Go4Gold talent recognition scheme, and there is now a natural migration of female athletes towards rugby.
“We were very impressed with what we got out of it,” says Horan. “A thousand-plus competitors and it continues to grow.”
Horan is less surprised by the spread of success on the women’s circuit, with South Africa and USA recently coming to the fore. Given the relative ease of picking up Sevens, he sees the levelling of the playing field as inevitable.
“Rugby is a unique sport in its decision-making, but Sevens is easier than 15s,” he said. “If you think of the technical side of 15s and Sevens, 15s is more in-depth, the dynamics of Sevens are simpler.”
He expects a solid challenge in China from teams such as England, with their “impressive resources behind them”, plus the likes of Canada, the Netherlands, USA and Russia.
He wouldn’t bet against South Africa repeating their strong showing of the season-opener in Houston, either.
“That’s the beauty of this game; anyone can win it,” he says.
“Sevens is only a very short game and anything can happen. South Africa never give up – it’s a lot to do with their character.”
Women's World Series: Story so Far