There is nothing more spectacular in sevens rugby than watching a player outwit and bamboozle the best defences with blinding pace. That’s what gets the fans out of their seats on the sideline and captivates television audiences. Pure speed on a sevens field creates the adrenaline surge that makes live sport such a memorable experience.
The truly fast men like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker (USA), Alasio Naduva (Fiji), Trae Williams (Australia) and Ireland’s Jordan Conroy are box office gold in sevens. All Blacks Sevens teams over the years have enjoyed more success than any other nation but, despite producing outstanding finishers, have rarely had out-and-out speed to match that elite group. But now they do in Caleb Tangitau. The 19-year-old has made quite an impact in scoring 10 tries from his opening two HSBC World Series tournaments held in Singapore and Vancouver in April. Tangitau impressed with his raw speed and smart finishing ability, plus a relaxed on-field outlook for such an inexperienced player at this level.
His natural talent still needs some fine-tuning, as he continues his sevens education under the expert tutelage of head coach Clark Laidlaw, but the potential for future greatness is there. Tangitau rates all the tries he has scored in his short sevens career so far but one of the two standout efforts he scored against England in Singapore is definitely his best because he was up against one of his childhood heroes. “When I went round Dan Norton and scored, that is my favourite try. Growing up I watched sevens a lot. My dad played for Tonga at two World Series and we used to always watch it together,” says Tangitau.
“I was always a big fan of Dan Norton because he was fast, has good footwork and was one of those guys who scored length of the field tries. So running around him was a bit surreal but was also a great feeling.” Tangitau’s debut was against Scotland in Singapore. It was slightly bizarre for him as the All Blacks Sevens wore white jerseys to avoid the clash with Scotland’s dark tops.
“I will never forget my first game. It was a bit weird running out on the field in the white jersey but it still felt like the AB Sevens. It was a crazy feeling. I was nervous as, and I actually dropped the ball and had a bad pass in my first play of the game. “But I ended up scoring my first try and all my nerves went away. I will remember it forever.”
Tangitau first made his mark as an outstanding, tryscoring machine from wing or fullback during his three seasons in the Westlake Boys’ High School First XV. He also enjoyed competing for the school at the national Condor Sevens tournament. No surprises with his athletic prowess that he also excelled in basketball, and competed at the Auckland secondary school champs in relay sprints, high jump and shot put. But rugby was where he hoped his future would lie.
After leaving school, Tangitau was snapped up by Auckland Rugby and the Blues. He admits signing for Auckland as a North Harbour boy was not easy at first but he looked at the bigger picture to where his career could go. “It was a proud moment for me and my family to sign contracts with them. It was tough to leave the home union, Harbour, but we thought the move was best for me to develop.”
Last November, Tangitau was contracted to the All Blacks Sevens programme based at the outstanding High Performance Centre in Mount Maunganui. It’s a big learning curve for a young man away from home and family for the first time. He is sharing a flat with four other players and is thriving in the new environment, absorbing new skills every day at training and improving his domestic skills as well. “I am loving it. It is such a nice city. I am lucky because I live next door to where we train, literally next door. Coming from having a 30 to 45-minute drive in Auckland to get to training, now it is a short walk. I am getting better sleep and everything.
“The main thing the coaches have been working on this year has been my confidence and believing in my ability. When I first entered the team, I was holding back and shy, and was a bit scared to make mistakes. “They have just been telling me to be myself and there is a reason why they have given me a contract, so it has been a big thing for me. I am way more confident now, especially after playing more games and knowing the boys so much better now.” For coach Laidlaw, speed is hugely important in the modern game of sevens.
“We’re seeing a few teams at the moment that aren’t big. They are quick so that is something in the back of our minds when selecting our team. Caleb is a very quick athlete with good agility and we have seen he is comfortable to back himself from deep on the field,” says Laidlaw.
“Caleb’s potential is hugely exciting. He is going to be a class sevens player going forward. He has got everything. Our job is to develop him with his preparation and technically and tactically on the field, but at the moment we’re excited where he’s at. “We’ve had good outside backs in the past few years and he’s no different. He has a good temperament on the big stage for a young man which is impressive. We need to let him mature and develop and not rush him.”
After claiming a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year, the All Blacks Sevens are focused on winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in England in July and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in South Africa in September. Once the sevens season is completed, it is straight back into his first NPC season for Tangitau. His exceptional pace and ability to break tackles will add further depth to the already strong Auckland squad.
“I am looking forward to getting into it with Auckland when we get back a few rounds late into the NPC,” he says. But first there are plenty of opportunities to come for the powerfully built winger to further enhance his international reputation – and hopefully help the All Blacks Sevens enjoy a golden end to 2022.
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