Five test stars who could feature at this year's Tokyo Olympics
Although the World Sevens Series schedule remains unclear for the foreseeable future thanks to COVID-19, the lure of this year’s Olympics is still intact as the Games are still planned to go forth a year after its initial postponement.
That’s what sevens stars and fans around the world are hoping for, at least, as the abbreviated form of rugby is set to grace the planet’s largest sporting event for a second time running, five years after Fiji claimed gold in Rio de Janeiro.
Among the 12 men’s teams that took to the field at Deodoro Stadium were a raft of players who had already made names for themselves in the XV-a-side game.
Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko and Akira Ioane, Augustine Pulu, Cheslin Kolbe, Juan de Jongh, Francois Hougaard, Kwagga Smith, Leone Nakarawa, Josua Tuisova, Juan Imhoff, Virimi Vakatawa, Kenki Fukuoka, Lomano Lemeki, Ruaridh McConnochie and Mark Bennett all featured at the 2016 Olympics, giving the Games no shortage of test stars.
But, should this year’s edition of the Olympics go ahead as planned in Tokyo, which current crop of test internationals could play at Tokyo Stadium in July and August?
Here are five potential candidates:
Caleb Clarke (New Zealand)
Had there been a World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award for 2020, Caleb Clarke would have almost certainly been the frontrunner to claim that accolade.
Kicking off the year as part of the All Blacks Sevens squad, Clarke was at the forefront of the New Zealand national side’s success as they claimed three of last season’s six tournament titles on the World Sevens Series prior to the global COVID-19 lockdown.
That brought an end to Clarke’s sevens endeavours for the year, but his blockbusting influence was felt strongly in Super Rugby Aotearoa as he helped take the Blues close to their first title in 17 years.
So good he was on the Auckland franchise’s left wing that he earned an All Blacks call-up for the Bledisloe Cup series and Tri-Nations, and it was there where he flourished again through his barnstorming carries and immense physicality.
Now a household name in test rugby, questions have arisen over where his allegiances lie between sevens and the 15-a-side game in this Olympic year, and it’s something not even the 21-year-old is sure of yet, as he suggested to The XV last month.
However, All Blacks Sevens coach Clark Laidlaw remains hopeful his star man will lace up the boots and jump on board for another year as one of four Super Rugby players granted permission from New Zealand Rugby to purse an Olympic gold medal.
“We’re hopeful. Caleb loves his time here, he keeps in contact regularly with the players, myself and some of the staff, so we’ve had good conversations with Caleb; he’s had good conversations with the Blues and All Blacks around wanting to be involved, so we’re really positive about Caleb,” Laidlaw told Newstalk ZB late last year.
“Once we get through this little period, if it becomes certain the Olympics are going to go ahead – and we are confident that will be the case, then we’re really positive around Caleb being in the mix again.”
Sean McMahon (Australia)
A powerful 26-test Wallabies loose forward, McMahon was the subject of a special deal between Suntory and Rugby Australia [RA] that allowed him to chase Olympic glory in December 2019.
That saw the now-26-year-old play for Australia at the Cape Town Sevens that month, his first outing for the national sevens team in five years, with another outing at the Singapore Sevens scheduled last April before its cancellation.
Now back in Tokyo as he prepares for the kick-off of the new Top League season, McMahon told RugbyPass earlier this week he is still eager to push for a place at the Olympics, although there is still plenty of work to be done to make that dream reality.
“I think anyone would still be keen to have a crack at the Olympics. It’s a pretty big feat to have that opportunity,” he said.
“I’ve been to a Commonwealth Games, and I guess to tick a box of going to the Olympics, that’s something you get to have for the rest of your life, that memory if you do get to go.
“I would love to go, but my focus right now is trying to get through this current stage of Top League and get back into playing some genuine footy, because we’ve only played a couple of trials and there’s been so many months of just training.”
Liam Gill (Australia)
While McMahon told RugbyPass he was eager to play at the Olympics but was unsure of what his future holds in the shorted format of the game, he was quick to namedrop one of his good mates and a fellow ex-Wallaby as player keen on a return to sevens.
Having played sevens for Australia for five years and part of the silver medal-winning side of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, 15-test flanker Liam Gill would be a welcomed addition to Tim Walsh’s side.
Given the deal that was struck between Suntory and RA for McMahon, there’s little reason to suggest something similar could be figured out for Gill, especially if he’s as keen on playing sevens for the first time since 2014 as McMahon says he is.
“I’ve chatted to him [Gill] every now and again and he’s said he’d be keen to have a crack if he could still get around on the sevens field.”
With experience that few other members of the Australian sevens squad can boast – and already based in Japan, which is a big bonus in these COVID-19 times – don’t be surprised if Gill dons the green and gold sevens jersey once again this year.
Semi Radradra (Fiji)
Since crossing over to rugby union from rugby league in 2017, Semi Radradra has established himself as one of the best players on the planet – not only in XVs, but also in sevens.
A year after his transition from the NRL to the Top 14, Radradra made his first appearance for the Fiji sevens side in seven years at the 2018 London Sevens, and went to the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco two months later.
His career has been firmly focused on the 15-a-side game in recent seasons, though, with successful stints at Toulon and Bristol, as well as a stellar campaign with Fiji at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, making him one of the world’s best attacking weapons.
That, however, doesn’t mean he won’t return to sevens for the Tokyo Olympics, as Fiji sevens head coach Gareth Baber revealed to RugbyPass earlier month that the 28-year-old will speak with Bristol boss Pat Lam about his availability for the Games.
“Semi definitely has an intention and a desire to play in the Olympics and there will be conversations with Semi and Pat,” Baber said.
A player his talent, experience and reputation would certainly do Fiji’s sizeable chances of retaining their gold medals no harm at all, so it would be a shock not to see Radradra involved in one way or another.
Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa)
Part of the Blitzboks side that claimed a bronze medal at Rio 2016, Cheslin Kolbe made headlines last year when he said that he would prioritise the British and Irish Lions tour ahead of the Tokyo Olympics following the latter event’s year-long postponement.
That has forced a scheduling conflict between the Lions tour and the Olympics, both of which are set to take place throughout July and August.
Having never faced the Lions and already an Olympian, Kolbe told Planet Rugby last May that he would prefer competing in a Lions tour over attending Tokyo 2020.
Those comments seemingly put an end to the 2019 World Cup star’s gold medal prospects, but with the Lions tour jeopardised by COVID-19, there may not be a conflict between the tour and the Olympics.
That all depends on whether the Lions and the Springboks can come to a compromise and make something work in these unpredictable times, but one would imagine Kolbe would be eager to put his name forward for the Olympics if he can’t square off against the best from the United Kingdom and Ireland later this year.
It’s not as if he hadn’t already prior to the postponement of the Olympics, as he revealed last February that he had held conversations with the South African Rugby Union about the possibility of playing at Tokyo 2020.
“I am in talks with them but there has to be decisions made whether I can go or if I have to stay. We still have to wait on that decision,” he said.
“Playing in the Olympics, representing your country at one of the biggest stages of the world is a big opportunity. If I can go it will be a blessing. I also don’t want to get ahead of myself.”
He added at the time that an Olympic gold medals are one of two major accolades he wants to tick off in rugby, which will be music to the ears of Blitzboks coach Neil Powell.
“There are two more things I would still love to achieve and that’s probably winning the European Champions Cup and hopefully the Olympics with South Africa.”
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