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Sarah Hirini makes ‘unbelievable’ return as New Zealand name Olympic squads

By Finn Morton
The Men's and Women's New Zealand Rugby Sevens teams pose for a group photoduring a Paris 2024 Olympic Games New Zealand Rugby Sevens Selection Announcement at Baypark Stadium on June 20, 2024 in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images for NZOC)

New Zealand’s Sarah Hirini is looking to become one of the first two-time Olympic gold medallists in women’s rugby sevens after completing an “unbelievable” return from injury in time for next month’s Paris Games.

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Hirini, who was a flagbearer for New Zealand at the Tokyo Games before going on to help the nation claim their first-ever rugby sevens gold medal, suffered a devastating knee injury at the SVNS Series’ Dubai leg in December.

Coach Cory Sweeney told RugbyPass that Hirini was “unlikely” to suit up again at the season’s opening event in the United Arab Emirates and that proved to be the case. New Zealand’s inspirational skipper ended up missing the rest of the season.

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With the Black Ferns Sevens following onto Cape Town for the next event on the circuit, Hirini was in tears as Portia Woodman-Wickliffe led a haka at Dubai airport. Risaleaana Pouri-Lane stepped up as team captain for the rest of the season.

Hirini was with the team at the SVNS Series Grand Final in Madrid earlier this month but didn’t take the field. But it still suggested the rugby sevens veteran was on track for a potential return ahead of the world’s biggest sporting event.

The New Zealand sevens teams for the Paris Olympics were unveiled this week with Hirini headlining a star-studded women’s squad that includes the likes of Jorja Miller, Stacey Waaka and Michaela Blyde.

“We sat down six months ago and knew that it was achievable, but it would be tight. It’s been pretty unbelievable seeing how hard Goosy has worked to get back and we will really ramp up her involvement over the next six weeks,” coach Cory Sweeney said in a statement.

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“Every Olympic cycle has its theme, and this time round we want to stamp our mark on history. We have players who have been here for 12 years and it’s highly likely it might be their last tournament.

“On the other end, we have some players living out a childhood dream being named for the first time, so we need to channel those emotions.”

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As for the men’s team, Scott Curry and Regan Ware are set to play at their third Olympics after being named in a talented squad. Six players are set to feature for the second consecutive Games after taking home silver in Tokyo.

2023 World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year nominees Leroy Carter and Akuila Rokolisoa, as well as the likes of Tepaea Cook-Savage, Fehi Fineanganofo and Moses Leo, are in line to play at the Olympics for the first time.

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Experienced campaigners Sione Molia, Joe Webber and Tim Mikkelson will travel as reserves. However, there are some big-name omissions with Cody Vai, Sam Dickson and Che Clark among the non-travelling reserves.

“Selections are always tough; we have had to make a lot of big calls throughout the year already which created healthy competition within the squad and has made our job really hard as coaches,” coach Tomasi Cama explained.

“We have a few players that haven’t been to an Olympic Games before, and we want to take that energy to enjoy the occasion. Instead of taking the hurt of the last one, we need to be excited about the opportunity to be the first men’s sevens team to win a gold for New Zealand.”

New Zealand have won three medals across the two Games to date. The women’s team were beaten by arch-rivals Australia 24-17 in the Rio decider in 2016 but made amends five years later by taking home gold in Tokyo.

The men’s side were knocked out of medal contention in the quarter-final stage by eventual champions Fiji 12-7 in Rio and were beaten by their traditional rivals again in Tokyo with a gold medal on the line.

But after winning Cup final ‘doubles’ in both Hong Kong China and Singapore this season, there’s every chance they make Olympic Games history at Stade de France from July 24 to 30.

“We’re thrilled to have two really exciting and experienced rugby sevens teams named for the Paris Olympics,” NZOC CEO Nicki Nicol added.

“We have a proud history in sevens at the Olympics and we look forward to watching these teams add to that legacy in just over a month’s time in Paris.”

New Zealand women’s rugby sevens

Paris Olympics squad: Michaela Blyde, Jazmin Felix-Hotham, Sarah Hirini**, Tyla King, Jorja Miller, Manaia Nuku, Mahina Paul, Risaleaana Pouri-Lane, Alena Saili, Theresa Setefano, Stacy Waaka, Portia Woodman-Wickliffe

Travelling reserves: Tysha Ikenasio, Tenika Willison, Kelsey Teneti

Non-travelling reserves: Kelly Brazier, Terina Te Tamaki, Dhys Faleafaga, Justine McGregor

New Zealand men’s rugby sevens

Paris Olympics squad: Leroy Carter, Dylan Collier, Tepaea Cook-Savage, Scott Curry, Fehi Fineanganofo, Andrew Knewstubb, Moses Leo, Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, Tone Ng Shiu, Akuila Rokolisoa, Brady Rush, Regan Ware

Travelling reserves: Tim Mikkelson, Sione Molia*, Joe Webber

Non-travelling reserves: Cody Vai, Sam Dickson, Amanaki Nicole*, Lewis Ormond, Che Clark, Xavier Tito-Harris, Jayden Keelan, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens

*Subject to meeting conditions set by NZR and NZOC by 1 July 2024

**Subject to meeting conditions set by the NZR and NZOC by 2 July 2024

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1 Comment
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Bernard 27 days ago

The Black Ferns’ squad is packed with outstanding players and if the final is against Australia, it should be a game of brilliant rugby. Watch Michaela Blyde & Maddie Levi go.

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finn 5 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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