By Ian Gilbert
It’s fair to say that New Zealanders are blessed with a natural aptitude for rugby – the success of their men’s and women’s fifteens teams on the world stage are testament to that.
Right now, women’s Sevens head coach Sean Horan is combing the country for players with the X factor to extend that success to the abbreviated game.
The admission of Rugby Sevens to the Olympic programme has focused minds on the road to Rio 2016, and Horan and his coaching team are conducting an exhaustive search – under the banner Go4Gold – for the women who could take that first gold medal.
“We’re out there marketing (Sevens) and exploring all avenues as regards other sports,” he says.
Horan reveals that no more than 15 per cent of the female athletes scrutinised so far are current players, but stresses that the game of rugby isn’t trying to step on any toes.
“We’re not poaching from other sports,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to go for gold.”
Laying the foundation
Horan and his colleagues are rapt with the results so far of the Sevens talent identification programme.
“It has been fantastic. We’ve screened 1,000-plus female athletes and been to a lot of provinces. It’s about identifying the talent we believe will be able to progress.”
With the elite squad being finalised, the New Zealanders’ absence so far from the IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup tournaments is simply a question of timing.
“We want to lay a strong foundation – there’s no real rush,” Horan explains. “It would have been fantastic to take part in Hong Kong and London, to be on the scene – but it’s not part of the talent identification plan.”
Horan, who was appointed at the start of the year, is satisfied they have the right approach.
“One thing about New Zealand is we do know rugby. It takes a few years to develop a top-level rugby team. We’ve got to plan things properly.”
While New Zealand's focus is currently on planning, for the other leading nations in Women's Rugby the focus is on next weekend's event in London, the third IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup event of the season.
The Australian-New Zealand rivalry is always strong, especially after Australia's sudden death extra time victory in the RWC Sevens 2009 final, but Horan highlights the Canadians as a side to watch; their defeat by England in Hong Kong in March was their first reverse since losing to the same opponents at RWC Sevens 2009.
Watching from afar
Of the other sides, Horan has been doing his homework. “England have got a fantastic structure in place with women’s rugby,” he says. “Spain, China – both have the resources.”
In his playing days Horan, 40, was hooker for Wellington side Marist St Pats, captaining the club to two premier titles, before taking up coaching 12 years ago with Portuguese side Belenenses.
He has enjoyed a varied career since that first stint, coaching Irish side Blackrock then returning to New Zealand and taking the reins of Mount Maunganui – whom he led to their first title in 12 years.
Prior to taking on the Sevens challenge, Horan – whose father, Kevin, is a renowned coach – was with Bay of Plenty in the ITM Cup.
The tenacious instincts needed in the front row as a player may have been present at times in his coaching career, with a newspaper reporter once likening him to a pitbull terrier.
Horan remembers the reference with good grace. “That may have been the case but now I’m older and wiser,” he laughs. “Sometimes drive and willingness to succeed can be mistaken for angriness.”
If Horan’s commitment is anything to go by, New Zealand’s Sevens women will soon be making great strides along the road to Rio 2016.