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‘I loved playing it’: How close All Blacks Sevens skipper came to AFL deal

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Alex Davidson - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

When rugby fans list off the greatest dual internationals to have ever graced the sport, names such as Sonny Bill Williams, Brad Thorn and Chris Ashton come to mind.

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The conversation can go on to include other talented players including Lote Tuqiri, Jason Robinson, Mat Rogers and even NRL legend Benji Marshall.

But let’s not forget about All Blacks Sevens captain Sam Dickson.

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Dickson is coming off a stellar campaign with the All Blacks Sevens, which saw the skipper hoist the World Series trophy in triumph at last weekend’s London Sevens at Twickenham.

New Zealand are back on top of the rugby sevens world – in both the men’s and women’s competitions – and Dickson played a pivotal role in the drought-breaking series title.

But the 33-year-old, who is an Olympian and a three-time Commonwealth Games medallist, could’ve gone down a very different sporting path – and to an extent, he did.

While playing club rugby in Christchurch as a teenager, Dickson broke his scaphoid in his wrist, and required both surgery and a year out from the sport to recover.

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But, as he put it, “stupid little Sam” decided to play club AFL, believing at the time that it wouldn’t “be as hard as rugby.”

Little did Dickson know that the decision to play the beloved Australian sport in the South Island of New Zealand was the start of a stunning multi-year stint.

Dickson was selected in the New Zealand squad for the International Cup in Australia, which is the World Cup for Aussie Rules.

But the opportunity to represent his country also opened the door for a professional career, with Dickson revealing that he “got into a little bit of talks” with Victorian club St Kilda.

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“There was a few small glimpses of hope,” Dickson told RugbyPass.

“When I played in the International Cup, obviously teams were there scouting and in my team was Jason Heatherly… he played for the Hawthorn Hawks for a number of years.

“He was in my team and he’d already had a Hawthorn scholarship because Hawthorn had links to New Zealand AFL back then.

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“I got into a little bit of talks with St Kilda and went up to meet their coach for a little bit it didn’t turn out to anything.

“They sort of need players that start playing AFL quite early and have all the fundamentals and the understanding of the game down pat.

“I was about 21 so I think it was a little bit late for me unfortunately.

“If it happened I definitely would’ve taken it with two hands because I loved playing it to be honest.”

Dickson’s coach at representative level in Canterbury held the same role with the New Zealand side, and ended up selecting the future sevens star for higher honours.

The young athlete went on to represent his country at the International Cup against a somewhat surprising number of nations – in fact, Dickson said that “AFL’s played pretty much by every country.”

With the final held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground as a curtain raiser to a professional AFL clash, New Zealand competed in the same competition as the likes of India, Norway, Sweden and the United States.

“I fell in love with it, I just love how it’s a 360 game, it’s pretty non-stop… just that freedom, I played centre half-forward in the middle so I had a bit of freedom to just do what I wanted,” he added.

“Representing your country for whatever sport, I really wanted to do it and I was lucky enough to do that and travel to Australia to play.

“Obviously it wasn’t at the level of the actual AFL, those guys are just on a completely different level to what we were playing.

“It was just a good opportunity to try something new… to be honest if it wasn’t for playing AFL, I don’t know if I would’ve made it to the All Blacks Sevens.

“Just cause of the ariel stuff that the AFL taught me, it sort of led into my sevens around kick-offs… not many people could take the ball above their head like they do now so that really gave me X-factor.

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“A lot of sevens players, if you can’t take a ‘speccy’ like they do in AFL on a kick-off then you probably won’t be around too long.”

But Dickson’s Aussie Rules career came to an end in his early 20s when he signed his first professional contract with the All Blacks Sevens – and really, he hasn’t looked back.

Dickson has played more than 330 matches in the black jersey on the Sevens World Series, scored 494 points, and is just two tries short of a century.

When his playing days are all said and done, Dickson will undoubtedly go down in history alongside the likes of DJ Forbes and Tim Mikkelson as a modern-day sevens great.

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