Revelations earlier in the week that All Blacks Sevens head coach Clark Laidlaw will have a maximum of just one player per Super Rugby franchise to call upon for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo has left him short-handed by New Zealand Rugby.
Given the amount of work that went into allowing rugby sevens to become an Olympic sport in 2009, which has publicised the game on a global scale at one of the two largest sporting events on the planet, one would think that all involved unions at Tokyo 2020 would have their national sevens sides – both men and women – at the top of their respective priority lists.
By having the Olympics at the top of any given union’s priority list, having as many XVs stars available as possible who are willing to commit to the transition to sevens for a one-off season seems like it should be inevitable.
Possessing such a mindset helped propel Fiji to their first-ever gold medal across any Olympic discipline, with the influence of European club rugby stars Leone Nakarawa, Josua Tuisova and Viliame Mata proving to be invaluable.
A lot of Fiji’s success also came through the involvement of former head coach Ben Ryan, and that was one of the key differences between the Bula Boys’ gold medal success and the All Blacks Sevens’ – who had Blues and All Blacks players Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko and Akira Ioane, and Augustine Pulu – fifth-place finish.
Although New Zealand barely fired a shot in Rio de Janeiro, going down to the eventual champions in the quarter-finals after losing to Japan and Great Britain the day beforehand, the presence of the likes of the Ioane brothers was integral to getting the side even past the pool stage.
The impact of Rieko and Akira, then aged just 19 and 21, wasn’t only restricted to the tournament in Brazil, but also in the preceding couple of World Sevens Series, as the electric and powerful duo firmly established themselves as key cogs in the national sevens set-up before going on to push for higher honours in the XVs version of the game.
However, while the presence of XVs players in the All Blacks Sevens is likely for next season’s World Sevens Series and Tokyo 2020, no two players from the same franchise will be present in Laidlaw’s squad.
That means the chances of seeing four players from the Blues in the side, as was the case three years ago, has been nullified, and in doing so, it significantly reduces the chances of the already-struggling All Blacks Sevens, who bumbled to their third consecutive fifth-placed finish in London last weekend, from claiming a gold medal in the Japanese capital, as they will be expected to do.
Attracting as many XVs stars to rugby sevens’ pinnacle event to boost any nation’s chances of attaining gold should be paramount in the year leading into the Olympics, but NZR’s newly-imposed restrictions means Laidlaw has been dealt a somewhat hefty blow in his preparations.
Nevertheless, with the new restrictions limiting the All Blacks Sevens to just one player per Super Rugby franchise for the 2019-20 World Sevens Series and the Tokyo Olympics, here is a selection of players from the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders that could opt to make the transition from XVs to sevens with an eye on Tokyo 2020.
Rieko Ioane (Blues)
After having debuted for the All Blacks Sevens at the Wellington leg of the 2014-15 World Series as a 17-year-old, Ioane has plenty of experience during his one-and-a-half year stint in the national sevens side.
A former New Zealand Sevens Player of the Year, he attended the inaugural Olympic sevens tournament in Rio de Janeiro, and before that, he had accumulated 10 World Series appearances across 2015 and 2016.
Since then, he has gone on to star for both the Blues and All Blacks, being nominated twice for World Rugby Player of the Year and having won World Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2017.
Renowned for his impressive physical stature, rapid acceleration and top-end speed, Ioane has been a try-scoring sensation on the international stage, dotting down 22 times from 24 test outings.
His freakish finishing ability has earned him widespread acknowledgement as the best wing on the planet, and by the end of this year’s World Cup in Japan, his standing within the All Blacks’ squad should remain unchallenged, making a return to sevens feasible given the lack of threat provided by any other New Zealand wing in taking his spot within the side.
The value of both Ioane’s experience and talent within the realm of sevens would make him a much-needed addition for Laidlaw’s squad as the 22-year-old looks to make amends for his side’s quarter-final bust in Rio 2016.
Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
The foundations of Damian McKenzie’s gameplay is his electric agility and lightning pace, and both of those attributes would help him excel in the game of sevens.
The diminutive playmaker has entertained fans of the Chiefs and All Blacks since his Super Rugby and test debuts in 2015 and 2016 through his instinctive and ambitious style of play, which frequently pays dividends thanks to the rapid way of which he operates.
Earmarked to play a key role in the All Blacks’ World Cup campaign this year as a fullback who could cover first-five, McKenzie’s season was cut short due to a ruptured ACL sustained last month against the Blues.
Ruled out until December, the 24-year-old will be eager to make a seamless return to the national side by reasserting his credentials with the Chiefs in next season’s Super Rugby, but with it being an Olympic year, there is an alternative route back to test rugby that McKenzie could embark on.
Not only could he play his way back into international contention through Super Rugby, but he could also do the same on the World Series circuit in similar fashion to what the Ioane brothers did in 2016, when they split their time between the Blues and All Blacks Sevens between February and May.
The end goal of recovering from his injury and making his way back into the All Blacks is one that will undoubtedly provide McKenzie with ample satisfaction, but the prospect of winning an Olympic gold medal while completing his long-term comeback would be a cherry on top of the cake.
Ardie Savea (Hurricanes)
Arguably the best player in Super Rugby this season, Ardie Savea is finally beginning to reach the potential he showed glimpses of as a teenager earlier this decade.
Shortly after representing New Zealand at schoolboy level, Savea was thrusted into the All Blacks Sevens side during the 2011-12 World Sevens Series, playing a starring role en route to the 10th of their 12 world titles.
It was a four-year wait before Savea donned the black jersey in the abbreviated format of the game again, declaring his allegiance to the side for their 2015-16 campaign as he looked to play at Rio 2016.
However, with rumours rife of his probable selection into the All Blacks for the first time after some blockbusting form for the Hurricanes in their maiden title-winning Super Rugby season, Savea withdrew from Sir Gordon Tietjens’ sevens squad, and a trip to the Olympics was called off in favour of a debut year of test match rugby.
Three years later, and Savea has been in career-best form for the Hurricanes and All Blacks over the past six months or so, and if his form continues to build at its current trajectory, then his stature within Steve Hansen’s squad could be untouchable by the end of the World Cup.
Similarly to Ioane, this would free Savea up for a third stint with the All Blacks Sevens – should he want it – without the fear of losing his place within the All Blacks, and after missing his chance to play at the Olympics in 2016, it may be too difficult of an opportunity to turn down twice in a row.
Leicester Fainga’anuku (Crusaders)
By far the least recognisable name, Leicester Fainga’anuku’s inclusion on this list comes as a result of not only his impressive build and promising talent, but also his current standing within a stacked Crusaders squad.
Standing at 1.88m and 109kg, the 19-year-old wing is powerfully built and has similar dimensions to that of former All Blacks star Julian Savea.
Fainga’anuku possesses the potential to reach the prime ability of the older Savea brother too, as his style of play utilises his strong, stocky frame to full effect, leaving defenders hapless to his bulldoze-like running ability.
He’s shown his ability with ball in hand for New Zealand Schools, New Zealand U20 and Tasman in the Mitre 10 Cup, but has been limited to just one appearance from off the bench in his debut campaign with the Crusaders.
While he’d almost certainly receive plenty more game time at every other Super Rugby franchise in the country, Fainga’anuku has been starved of action during his time with the Crusaders this year, playing just once in a bench cameo against the Brumbies in round eight.
That has come as a result of the extensive outside back stocks evident within the Crusaders, with George Bridge, David Havili, Braydon Ennor, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan and Manasa Mataele all dominating on the wings and at fullback.
Bridge, Havili and Ennor have all been re-signed for 2020 and beyond, and it’s difficult to envisage the Crusaders releasing Reece, Jordan and Mataele given the time and resources that have been used on developing their exponential talent, so game time could again be hard to come by for the prodigiously talented Fainga’anuku.
With that in mind, a sabbatical of sorts in the All Blacks Sevens set-up during their quest to a gold medal Olympics campaign could be an ideal route to proving his prominence, and his power and explosiveness might be hard to spurn for head coach Laidlaw.
Aaron Smith (Highlanders)
Likely to be remembered as the greatest All Blacks halfback of all-time, Aaron Smith delighted Highlanders and New Zealand fans earlier this month by signing a new deal which will see him stay in Dunedin until the end of 2021.
With World Cup, Super Rugby, Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship titles among a raft of various other trophies to his name, 30-year-old veteran has won almost everything on offer in Super Rugby and at test level.
One accolade remains vacant from his trophy cabinet, though, and that’s an Olympic medal.
With two years left in New Zealand as he begins to enter the twilight years of his career, the chance to add an Olympic gold medal to his highly-decorated CV must be a tantalising prospect for Smith, whose widely lauded passing ability would be lethal in sevens.
It’s an asset of his which has made him one of the most valuable members within both the All Blacks and Highlanders, and could catapult the All Blacks Sevens from constant quarter-final drop-outs to serious medal contenders.
Smith has never played sevens at an international level before, but with every other challenge accomplished in the XVs game, the chance to become the first World Cup and Olympic gold medal winner in rugby history is one that would confirm the 82-test veteran’s status as an all-time legend.
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