Just when we thought that the All Blacks Sevens had done its dash and that others had finally figured out how to beat New Zealand consistently, back they come and the pecking order returns to normal.
What’s happened? Has it simply been because the massive injury attrition rate has been arrested? Is it the result of an apparent decision to opt for size and strength as a first priority?
Is it that something of a generational change has taken place in the squad or is it because of the infusion of star quality talent from the 15-a-side game?
Some suspect it’s because of some bold new tactical approach by Gordon Tietjens. There’s no clear answer to this just yet but the difference in the performance and the energy levels of the squad in the last two tournaments is palpable.
Take Pat Lam for instance. From a sluggish, mistake-prone trundler at the beginning of the season he’s turned into a facsimile of Julian Savea busting through multiple tackles and creating space for others around him.
In terms of a generational shift the dramatic impact of the two Ioane brothers, Akira and Rieko, is perhaps the standout factor. After a tentative and mistake-ridden debut these two have manufactured at least half of the All Blacks Sevens’ tries between them in the last two tournaments in New Zealand and Australia.
They are now as indispensible to the team as the remarkable Tim Mikkelson, whose absence, along with that of master and commander DJ Forbes and the super assertive physical bullying of Scott Curry, seemed to create a really ghastly leadership vacuum.
The Ioane brothers seem to be able to mesmerise opponents not just by pace but an exceptional ability to break the defensive structures of any opposing team, again and again. In the final last weekend against Australia in Sydney they and Mikkelsen were the difference between the two sides.
But it doesn’t end there. The arrival of Ardie Savea, a turnover merchant in the same class as David Pocock but also exceptionally aggressive in contact, has given the New Zealanders another edge that has been missing in the absence of Forbes and Mikkelson.
The other significant factor has been the performance of playmaker Augustine Pulu who has taken to sevens more dramatically than any other. Pulu is a phenomenon. Somehow he looks so completely at home that he may be tempted to opt for sevens as a core career option, particularly now that he has achieved his ambition of playing Test rugby for the All Blacks.
Nobody would blame him if he did decide to do that. He has it all as a sevens exponent. He’s exceptionally quick, a deadly tackler, has a sharp sidestep and he reads the game as if he has been playing it all his life. A broken arm will keep him in the grandstand for a few weeks but he is a stone cold certainty in Gordon Tietjens’ squad for Rio.
We haven’t seen Liam Messam on display yet but he too has the speed, abrasive temperament and tactical know-how to be a major contributor as the year progresses. He will provide the steel alongside Curry and Sam Dickson at the business end of this year’s competition.
Then there’s the perennially enigmatic Sonny Bill Williams. Touted as the biggest gain from the 15-a-side ranks with all the rock star trappings, he has yet to really show that sevens is his thing.
His chief attribute – offloading in the tackle – has been overdone, sometimes dangerously, and he has occasionally been found wanting for all-out pace. With so many other options I suspect Tietjens will use Williams fairly sparingly.
There is now a refreshing maturity to the play of two of the other real game-breakers – Gillies Kaka and Joe Webber. For much of the last year or two the All Blacks Sevens has been short of really devastating steppers, the kind of players who can open up an organised defence on their own. These two are now on a par with the very best the South Africans and Fijians can field with such destructive effect.
So, when you add all that up you find a New Zealand team that, like the All Blacks, have all the bases covered. With their exceptional fitness, hardness of mind and body and the confidence of knowing that they are, all round, a shade more complete than their opponents, who would bet against them taking the Olympic title?