'I always knew rugby was in my blood': New Zealand's teenage sprint prodigy gives update on rugby future
It has been little over a year since Edward Osei-Nketia last delved into the realm of rugby, but the 19-year-old sprint sensation has no intention of giving up his sevens dream.
The track and field star made headlines at the beginning of 2019 when he registered one of the quickest sprint times seen by a Kiwi.
At the age of just 17, Osei-Nketia blitzed his way to the New Zealand 100m national title, and followed that up with an Australian championship just weeks later.
It was in Sydney where the then-schoolboy clocked a blistering time of 10.19s, making him the fourth-fastest New Zealand sprinter in history.
Two months later, Osei-Nketia claimed the Oceania crown in Townsville, which qualified him for the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where he came within 0.01s of qualifying for the semi-finals with a 100m time of 10.24s.
Intrigue in his sporting future spiked a few months prior to his impressive feats in Qatar, though, when the youngster revealed his ambitions to pursue a career in rugby shortly after winning the New Zealand title.
Osei-Nketia has never shied away from his voicing his interest in the oval ball code, having previously outlined his ambition to play test rugby.
That was music to the ears of New Zealand Rugby [NZR], who opened to the door for Osei-Nketia to step into the world of rugby by inviting him to the Red Bull Ignite 7s in November 2019 in a non-playing capacity.
With world-class speed and physical dimensions of 1.90m and 95kg, Osei-Nketia blew away NZR’s high performance sevens talent identification manager PJ Williams, who claimed at the time: “I’ve never seen an athlete with those genetics, ever.”
Upon reflection of his time at the talent identification camp, Osei-Nketia said he thoroughly enjoyed his time in what was his first exposure to a high performance rugby environment.
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“It was an amazing experience, being in a team environment and just seeing what the sevens life is all about. I actually loved it,” he told RugbyPass.
Since then, though, rugby has taken a back seat as he continues his qualification journey to the Tokyo Olympics as a track and field athlete.
“Just been throwing the ball to myself, kicking the ball just for fun, but nothing really serious with the rugby training,” Osei-Nketia said of his involvement in rugby since the Ignite 7s.
That isn’t to say the speedster has lost his desire to try his hand at rugby, a sport he made a name for himself in while attending St Edmund’s College in Canberra, where he claims to have scored two to three tries per match.
“I was in the smallest state of the whole of Australia,” Osei-Nketia laughed as he explained his try-scoring feats in the Australian capital.
“I don’t know how I would have gone if I was in Queensland or New South Wales, but for my first six matches, I would have been averaging like two to three.
“When it was later on in the season, I was pretty much just scoring in every match.”
Osei-Nketia says it was at St Edmund’s College where his passion for rugby began to flourish – a passion that has sparked dreams of chasing an appearance at the Olympics not only in track and field, but also in rugby sevens.
“Ever since I was in Australia, I always knew rugby was in my blood, like I always loved playing rugby,” he told RugbyPass.
“The friends I had back in St Edmund’s College showed me the passion and speed of sevens, so hopefully one day I’ll make a career of actually joining the sevens and hopefully I can make the Olympics for it.”
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Osei-Nketia’s mates weren’t the only significant influences in helping formulate his keenness on the game.
“Back in 2013 and ‘14, just before I started getting into rugby, there were two inspirations, Carlin Isles and Jonah Lomu, because they were very fast and very big,” he said.
“Every time I see Carlin Isles, I’m like, ‘Boy, he got wheels’. I strive to be like him and get the speed that he got.
“I’m just hoping that one day we’ll meet up at some point.”
Meeting Isles – the USA Sevens star who moved into rugby after starting out in track and field, where he had a personal best 100m time of 10.13s – could happen this year should both he and Osei-Nketia attend the Tokyo Olympics in July and August.
Osei-Nketia could even find himself coming up against his idol at some point down the line if he manages to compete at the Olympics in both sevens and athletics, something not even Isles has achieved.
Osei-Nketia himself struggled to comprehend whether it was something he was capable of until he registered himself as one of the fastest New Zealanders of all-time.
However, his newfound fame on the track forced him to put rugby to one side as he prepared for the World Championships.
“Before the 10.19s, I was focusing on athletics and rugby, trying to keep both sides,” Osei-Nketia explained.
“Because of the Doha 2019 World Championships – Oceania [Championships] was a good qualifying point, like if I won Oceanias I got to go – so it made me focus on athletics a bit more.
“After, when I won Oceanias, I was pretty much like, ‘Okay, rugby’s out for now’, and then I focused on the World Championships.”
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Rugby officials haven’t been dismayed by Osei-Nketia’s commitment to athletics, with both the man himself and his coach, Gary Henley-Smith, assuring RugbyPass that interest from NZR remains high and conversations about a code switch are ongoing.
“We talk about it quite a bit,” Henley-Smith, a former New Zealand sprinter and ex-rugby league wing for Wigan, said. “Eddie’s under the radar of New Zealand Rugby.”
The fact that Osei-Nketia, who was born in Auckland and spent his final years of schooling at Scots College in Wellington, and his camp are speaking with NZR will be pleasing for Kiwi rugby fans given the tug-of-war that ensued between the New Zealand and Australian athletics federations for his services in 2019.
Having spent time growing up in Canberra, Athletics Australia were eager for Osei-Nketia to don the green and gold singlet on the international stage.
It wasn’t to be, though, as he instead opted to represent the nation of his birth, something he intends to do again if given the chance in rugby.
“The same thing as the sprinting, I’m going to stick with my loyalty for New Zealand. Right here, I have a good little team, a good coach, a good strength and conditioning coach. I feel like I can’t get anywhere without my team.
“I think it’s best I stay loyal to the Kiwis.”
Osei-Nketia said his tight-knit support group – which includes his father Gus Nketia, the Ghanian-born ex-sprinter who holds the New Zealand 100m record of 10.11s, and Henley-Smith – would likely have a mixed reaction to a switch to rugby.
“I reckon the coaches would be a bit shattered if I decided to go to rugby, but they will appreciate it because it’s the best for me and thinking that I would go far in that sport.”
He added that while NZR remain in close contact with him about crossing codes, his coaches regularly remind him to take a wait-and-see approach regarding his decision until after the Olympics.
Before then, Osei-Nketia insists qualification for this year’s Olympics with a time of at least 10.05s takes top priority, followed by beating his father’s long-standing 100m record, which has held firm since 1990, and breaking the 10-second barrier.
“We just need to get first things first. After that, everybody will know I made the Olympics. Whatever happens after the Olympics, I can say I made the Olympics, even when I’m playing rugby onwards.”
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