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7 Olympic-bound test stars

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Seven test stars that could light up the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Earlier this month, Wallabies star Israel Folau declared his intentions to attend the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as part of the Australian sevens side.

It wouldn’t be the first time the 29-year-old utility back has decided to jump from one footballing code to another.

He signed on with Rugby Australia and the Waratahs in 2013 after a decorated four-season spell in the NRL with the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos, as well as an underwhelming two-year stint in the AFL with Greater Western Sydney.

His size, pace, power and agility have made him a world-class rugby union player, and they are attributes that will have Australian national sevens coach Tim Walsh salivating at the prospect of having Folau at his disposal.

“If I could take that opportunity, I’m sure it’d be something to cherish and remember for the rest of your life,” Folau told the Daily Telegraph.

“There’s no doubt the experience would be unreal. I’d definitely want to put my hand up to see if that opportunity [arose].”

Folau isn’t the first test star to state his aspirations of attending an Olympics in the sevens format of the game, though.

The inaugural tournament at the 2016 Rio Olympics saw a raft of XVs stars like Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Akira Ioane, Leone Nakarawa, Josua Tuisova, Cheslin Kolbe, Juan de Jongh, Juan Imhoff and Mark Bennett feature in Brazil.

Others, such as Quade Cooper, Bryan Habana, Tim Nanai-Williams and Nick Cummins, as well as NFL convert Jarryd Hayne, tried to make the jump, but did so unsuccessfully.

With Folau publicly stating his desire to chase a gold medal in the Japanese capital next year, we’ve brainstormed seven players from XVs who could make a serious impact on their national sevens team if they opt to switch to the abbreviated format of the game.

Joe Cokanasiga (Great Britain)

Plenty has already been written about the Fijian-born flyer, who shone in England’s recent Six Nations campaign.

2003 World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward and legendary loose forward Lawrence Dallaglio both compared Cokanasiga to the late Jonah Lomu after a compelling display against Italy in his side’s penultimate fixture of the tournament.

While the duo may have gone overboard in their assessment of the 21-year-old’s performance, it can’t be denied that the Bath wing doesn’t have the physical dimensions and athleticism to dominate the game of sevens.

At 1.93m and 118kg, Cokanasiga has a massive frame that can move rapidly on the pitch, so much so that he clocked in a speed of more than 10 metres per second at Bath training over the summer, making him quicker than club and national teammates Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph.

With England, Scotland and Wales combining for an Olympic qualification slot under the veil of Great Britain, a place in Tokyo would very much be available to Cokanasiga should he be interested.

To have him and someone such as Dan Norton alternating the wing position for the Brits would make for compelling viewing, and it could just be enough to elevate them from silver medallists in 2016 to gold medallists in 2020.

Quade Cooper (Australia)

Australia’s mercurial playmaker is set for a test re-call later this year after a season in the wilderness following his dumping from the Reds by head coach Brad Thorn.

While he’d only established himself as the back-up first-five to Bernard Foley at the time of his expulsion to Brisbane club rugby, Cooper has once again proven himself to be a phenomenal talent with ball in hand during his time with the Rebels.

Since joining the Melbourne-based franchise this season, he has helped guide them to the top of the Australian conference with his vast, brilliant skill set.

It’s a skill set that allows Cooper to put teammates into holes that few players could pick out, while also leaving defenders clutching at air thanks to the lethal footwork that he possesses.

Both attributes would make him a key player in the realm of sevens, and with a couple of tournaments under his belt from the 2015-16 World Series in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics, he has some experience in the shortened version of the code.

Then-Australian sevens coach Andy Friend said that he didn’t have enough time to mould Cooper into a bona fide sevens player at the time of his culling before the Olympics, and there are certain citizenship and passport issues the New Zealand-born pivot would need to address.

However, if he can commit himself to an entire season of sevens, he could very much wreak havoc with his unpredictability in Tokyo.

Aphiwe Dyantyi (South Africa)

The 2018 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year has been underwhelming so far in 2019.

Dyantyi is yet to find the spark in Super Rugby that catapulted him from relative obscurity into the Springboks set-up, and that, combined with an injury niggle, has seen him lose his starting left wing spot with the Lions in back-to-back weeks.

If his form continues to wane as badly as it has done in the opening month of Super Rugby, a freshener might be required in the form of a conversion from XVs to sevens in order to reignite the scintillating form the 24-year-old found himself in last year.

With the amount of top-end pace that he has, there would be plenty of opportunities for him to shine on the World Sevens circuit in the lead-up to next year’s Olympics.

To have someone like Dyantyi in a sevens team is what opposition defences have nightmares about, given how dangerous his blistering speed can be in such an open field.

The Blitzboks already have a raft of lightning quick players in their squad already, such as Siviwe Soyizwapi and Selvyn Davids, but to have Dyantyi alongside them would only complement their abilities, which could turn the reigning World Series champions into Olympic champions.

Paul Lasike (USA)

Built like a brick house, Paul Lasike would smash his way to stardom on the World Sevens circuit if given the chance.

The former NFL running back currently plies his trade for Harlequins in the Premiership after converting to rugby in 2017, and made his test debut for the United States against Chile the year after.

With dimensions of 1.78m and 117kg, the New Zealand-born midfielder heavily resembles blockbusting All Blacks second-five Ngani Laumape in terms of both physical structure and style of play.

Lacking in height but making up for it excessively in size and muscle, Lasike’s low centre of gravity and extreme power can make it incredibly difficult for defenders to stop the 28-year-old when he is flying at full tilt with ball in hand.

If thrusted into a sevens match, Lasike would find himself launching at opposition defences at full tilt on a regular basis thanks to the amount of time and space that would be afforded to him, and that could make this already dangerous USA sevens side even more threatening.

With Lasike and someone such as Danny Barrett punching up the middle of the park in a bid to free up space out wide for speedsters Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, the World Series-leading Eagles would undoubtedly be firmly in contention for a gold medal in Tokyo next year.

Amanaki Mafi (Japan)

Amanaki Mafi. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images for Sunwolves)

Another powerful ball carrier, Amanaki Mafi could really make a difference to the struggling Japanese sevens side with his strong offensive presence.

During his two-year stint with the Rebels, the Tongan-born No. 8 dominated Super Rugby with his attacking statistics, finishing in the top three for ball carries and top 10 for metres gained in both seasons.

After recently signing on with the Sunwolves, he is expected to continue to impose himself physically on the rest of the competition, and with an athletic frame of 1.89m and 112kg, it’s not difficult to envisage Mafi doing just that.

A star for the Japanese national side, he has the potential to be just as effective for the national sevens side as they prepare to host next year’s Olympics.

Languishing in 15th place on the World Series standings, Japan can consider themselves fortunate to have an automatic place at next year’s tournament as hosts given that it would be a struggle for them to qualify based on merit.

That may not have been the case if Mafi was ploughing away for them on the world circuit, and if he becomes available for them in July next year, head coach Tomohiro Segawa should certainly look into that as a possibility.

Damian McKenzie (New Zealand)

Small in stature but big in heart, the livewire Damian McKenzie has all the tools in his arsenal necessary to thrive in the game of sevens.

An electric presence whenever he takes to the field for the All Blacks or Chiefs, McKenzie’s ability to evade tackles and splinter the advantage line to set a game alight is a special skill that gives him an advantage despite his small frame.

The 23-year-old is quick and agile, but is beginning to develop his playmaking senses after prolonged spells at first-five in Super Rugby.

That combination of athletic ability and tactical nous is one that All Blacks Sevens coach Clark Laidlaw would love to have in his squad.

Not only would McKenzie’s presence within the side be a handful for opposing teams to deal with, it would significantly add to the depth within the New Zealand squad, as the 23-test star would contest with current playmaker Vilimoni Koroi for playing time.

A New Zealand sevens side that has either McKenzie or Koroi on at any given time would be one that would be should thrust the reigning sevens world champions into gold medal contention following their disappointing campaign in Rio three years ago.

Virimi Vakatawa (France)

Having already made a name for himself on the sevens circuit, the French could really do with the return of their former star man.

The midfielder/wing hasn’t featured for the national sevens team since 2017, after he was released from a contract that allowed him to play exclusively for the national sevens and XVs teams.

Being able to only play for those two sides proved to be incompatible given the differences in scheduling and physical preparation, and so the Fijian-born 26-year-old has since committed himself to Top 14 club Racing Metro, where he has starred.

However, the French sevens side has battled since his departure, currently sitting in 10th spot on the World Series standings, and are only that high up thanks to a fortuitous run to the final at the most recent tournament in Vancouver.

A bid to qualify for the Olympics looks destined to be via either the European qualifying tournament or final Olympic qualification event later this year, and with the other talent they are set to come up against from around the globe, it looks like a tough run for Les Bleus.

If the powerful Vakatawa was made available for them, though, then they would certainly have a better chance of not only qualifying for Tokyo 2020, but also of springing a couple of surprises in the Japanese capital.

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Seven test stars that could light up the 2020 Tokyo Olympics