Playing in the Rugby World Cup and Olympics within the space of 11 months
Rugby returns to the Olympics after a 92 year hiatus but this time the abbreviated form of the game is taking centre stage. The fast-paced, high-scoring nature of 7s allied to a tournament structure that can run to completion over the space of just a few days make it an excellent fit for a multi-sport event like the Olympics. The Womens’ competition has taken centre stage initially at the Deodoro Stadium – and provided some cracking entertainment. From tomorrow it will be the turn of the men.
By and large the players who populate the regular World Series events have been focused on 7s as a career in its own or as a pathway to the 15-a-side game. But for Rio there are a number of hardy souls who will feature in both of international rugby’s grand events that provide the bookends to the 2015/16 season – the Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Rugby 7s.
Out of 638 players who featured in the 2015 RWC just 11 will again strut their stuff on Rio’s global stage. They are an interesting mix of 7s graduates returning to their roots; World Series regulars; and of course a solitary World Cup winner who has only recently turned his hand to this format.
Mark Bennett (Team GB)
First up is Glasgow Warriors’ (pop quiz – how many current and former Warriors are participating in the Rio 7s? Answers in the comments) and Scotland’s own Messiah, Mark Bennett. Mark started four games in the RWC, bagging three tries in the process. He also has a fine scoring record in the shortened form – he played in two tournaments prior to participating in the Commonwealth Games 7s, picking up eleven tries in sixteen matches across all three events. The man from Cumnock may not have played in any of the HSBC Sevens World Series this season but he has spent the summer warming up on the Grand Prix Series with the rest of the Team GB side. With all this experience behind him it’s sometimes easy to forget how young Mark is – as can be seen from the additional duties he will be undertaking in Rio…
Kenki Fukuoka (Japan)
Kenki may be a throwback to a bygone era (A thirteen stone winger? In this day and age?!?) but he’s been in and around the Japanese squad since making his international debut as a 20 year old, when he scored tries with each of his first two touches in Test rugby. His solitary appearance in the World Cup came against Scotland just days after the Cherry Blossoms historic win over South Africa. He hasn’t actually featured in a Test match since but has concentrated on the abbreviated format this season, playing in just his second 7s tournament in Singapore – with Japan looking to add some strength to their Olympic challenge.
Leone Nakarawa (Fiji)
7s played a part in bringing Leone to the attention of Glasgow Warriors boss Gregor Townsend after the big Fijian starred in the Edinburgh leg of the World Series in 2013. It was the World Cup in England though where he underlined his status as one of the premier locks in world rugby, playing every minute of Fiji’s campaign. Managing to squeeze in a visit to the Paris 7s on a rare weekend off from the Pro 12, Leone was able to show coach Ben Ryan enough to know that even in a squad packed with outrageous skills, Naka could still add to the quest to bring Fiji their first ever Olympic medal. The big man can do it all but undoubtedly it’s his offloading skills that have caught the imagination – and will light up the Rio tournament.
Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)
The only man in the competition who could add gold to a RWC winners medal (would he give this one away so readily?) In fact having played in the 2013 rugby league World Cup final after Rio he will have been involved in the top tournament in all three of the biggest rugby formats. With no previous high level 7s experience Sonny Bill was one of a group of elite Kiwi players who committed themselves to the World Series circuit this season. Featuring in six out of the ten legs in 2015/16 he did enough to force his way in to Gordon Tietjens’ plans. Earlier in the season though he seemed to be concerned that New Zealand might need to bring in some ringers to enhance their squad…
Juan Imhoff (Argentina)
Matias Moroni (Argentina)
Argentina have brought in two significant contributors to their RWC campaign (combining for seven tries between them) although both have previous 7s experience. Matias has followed a well trodden path through the World Series to the full Pumas side playing twelve consecutive tournaments before launching his Test career. Matias finds himself teaming up with Racing 92’s Juan Imhoff who featured rather more briefly for the Argentina 7s – playing three rounds back in 2009/10. Juan by name and Juan by nature: this season’s stop in London is his sole experience of a top level 7s competition in the last six years – which possibly explains why he has been throwing up in training!
Danny Barrett (USA)
Andrew Durulato (USA)
Folau Niua (USA)
Zach Test (USA)
Chris Wyles (USA)
So with just six RWC players across the other eleven Olympic teams the Americans take a very different approach. Possibly an indication of the limited player pool arising from having to compete with so many top level sports in North America, forty percent of the US squad played in RWC 2015 at the start of this season and will end it competing in Rio. The core of this group are four players in Barrett, Durutalo, Niua and Test who have pretty much seen and done it all in 7s, combining for 154 tournaments, almost 700 games and 241 tries in the World Series.
By contrast, despite having one of the most storied careers in US rugby history, Chris Wyles has not played in an elite level 7s competition since 2009. He did score more than 50 tries of his own though back in the day and, given this is likely to be his final appearance in American colours having retired from Test rugby earlier this season, he will be looking to go out on a high. The States have shown they can win in the World Series – they may be outsiders for the Olympic tournament but will the “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants be ringing out in Rio?