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Manu Samoa Sevens coach, Sir Gordon Tietjens, has rejected suggestions that he should step down given the team's poor run of form during the HSBC Sevens Series.
In less than a year, the Manu Samoa Sevens has gone from aiming for fourth place on the World Rugby Sevens Series to aiming to merely stay alive in the competition. What's more, Samoa has yet to qualify for the Olympics, which remains a concern.
At the Samoa Rugby Union headquarters on Wednesday, Tietjens and the Manager of the Sevens team, Peter Poulos, fronted a press conference where the notion was put across if would consider stepping down.
“I think that’s a ridiculous question," Tietjens said, "I’ve got a job to do."
Tietjens then questioned the notion that he could be considered an expensive coach.
But Poulos asked fans to rally around the team and keep the faith.
“We have six more tournaments left, give us that support and time,” Poulos said.
“We’re not asking for sympathy, but the realities are that everything is not black and white. We fight uphill with everything we do in terms of player resources, finances, officiating calls you name it.”
Poulos said while those factors aren’t excuses, they have to accept the realities.
“We have to work harder, we have to work smarter, and that’s what we’re doing. Nobody feels the defeats more than we do, the players and the management We’re smaller in size than our opponents, less experienced, and yet we fight.”
He added that comparisons should not be made between Samoa’s World Series champion team of 2010 and the current squad.
For Tietjens, he said his team, who are currently 13th in the overall standings, have just two concerns for this season.
“We want to stay in the World Series first and foremost, and then we’ve got an Olympic qualifying tournament which we want to go and win,” he said.
With just 23 competition points to their name, Samoa are 14 ahead of Japan and Wales in joint last, and at risk of relegation to the second-tier Challenger Series.
At the same time last year, Samoa were 10thwith 30 competition points, about to go on a run of four straight quarterfinal appearances that had the coach believing a top-four finish overall was in play.
Tietjens put forth a number of reasons for his team’s performance, including injury woes, the competition format, referee decisions and limited resources the team has.
“Players switching on and switching off, that concerns me.
“We’ve basically got a new team at the moment, we’ve been slammed with injuries,” he said.
“It’s just a brutal sport, physically demanding. At the moment I think we’ve got 16 contracted sevens players, and we’ve got a huge amount of injuries, so we’re probably down to 11 or 12 fully-fit players as we speak.”
David Afamasaga, Melani Matavao and Alamanda Motuga, who were all key to the Manu’s 6th place overall in 2019, have each missed games over the first four 2020 legs.
However outside of those three, the core of the team that at least made the quarterfinals in five of the last six tournaments in 2019 remains largely intact
Tomasi Alosio, Tofatuimoana Solia, Joe Perez, John Vaili, Elisapeta Alofipo, and Paul Scanlan have each played in most, if not all of Samoa’s fixtures for the 2020 season.
“I think that’s a ridiculous question, I’ve got a job to do,” Tietjens said when asked if he'd consider stepping down.
Despite this, Sir Gordon Tietjens said his team just don’t have the depth at the moment to succeed. The only key member of his 2019 squad not retained for 2020 is playmaker, Tila Mealoi.
“Experience builds depth and at the moment we haven’t got that,” Tietjens said. “The only way to do that, you’ve gotta bring the young boys through and you’ve gotta give them game time.”
However, the coach is still relying on his veterans, with Paul Scanlan and Losi Filipo being the only players with less than 10 tournaments’ experience to have played in more than half Samoa’s matches this year.
Tietjens also claimed that the truncated competition format for the Hamilton and Sydney tournaments worked against his team.
“There’s no quarterfinals, where in the past you’ve had an opportunity to actually get runner-up [and progress from a pool],” he said.
However, losing all three of their pool games in Cape Town, Hamilton and Sydney means Samoa would not have progressed to the quarterfinals at each of those tournaments even under the traditional format.
Tietjens thinks his team were particularly unlucky in Sydney.
“We were so close to playing for a semifinal, we lost on fulltime to France,” he said
“We got a real bad call from a referee… for some unknown reason we seem to get the calls that don’t go our way.”
After that opening loss the Manu went on to lose once more on fulltime against Argentina, before getting blown out 36-0 by South Africa to finish fourth in Pool B.
The week before in Hamilton, Samoa were narrowly defeated by Fiji before suffering an embarrassing 40-0 loss against Argentina.
Sir Gordon Tietjens said the inconsistency shown by his team’s results can be put down to attitude and a lack of mental toughness.
“Players switching on and switching off, that concerns me,” he said. “Every time you play a Canada, a Wales or a Japan, you’ve gotta go out there with the same mindset as if you’re playing Fiji.”
“We want to stay in the World Series first and foremost.
He also mentioned the size of the current playing group as a disadvantage:
“We haven’t got the size that we’d like, it’s brutal now. You play Argentina they’re huge, you play France they’re huge, you play New Zealand they’re huge. We’ve got one big player – Tofatu Solia. We’ve got no height.”
Despite this, the coach still opts for a game plan and structures based on hard carries and physicality.
“We’re not Fijians, we’re Samoans; our game is built around contact,” Tietjens said.
He wasn’t prepared to give assurances of a successful performance at the Olympic repechage tournament in June, only that the team would give it their best “with the resources that we have.”
“We have to be right on top of our game,” Tietjens said.
“I can assure you that these players are going to give it their all.
“All I can say to the people from Samoa is our team is giving it our very, very best for the resources we have.”
During the press conference, Tietjens made multiple references to his historical coaching record.
“I’ve been coach of the All Blacks Sevens team for a number of years, I know what it takes to win tournaments,” he said.
A Tietjens-led side has not won a leg on the World Rugby Sevens Series since March 2016.
SOURCE: SAMOA OBSERVER/PACNEWS
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