By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Winning gold in rugby sevens at next year’s Tokyo Olympics is still a top priority for New Zealand Rugby (NZR) despite no current All Blacks making themselves available for the Games, the governing body said on Thursday.
Four players — Caleb Clarke, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Salesi Rayasi and Scott Gregory — have been granted leave from their Super Rugby teams to take part in the sevens campaign, NZR said.
Several current All Blacks had been approached last year to see if they were interested in joining Clark Laidlaw’s sevens programme, but none made themselves available.
“We approached a number of players and like everything it was individual player choice,” NZR’s Head of High Performance Mike Anthony told Reuters.
Anthony indicated that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen leaving after the World Cup and several senior players moving offshore had been factors in players preferring to see how the 15s environment played out in 2020.
Clarke, Nanai-Seturo, Rayasi and Gregory, who had all come through the sevens team before moving into Super Rugby, would be the only 15s players considered for selection for the squad.
Anthony also said that not having any current All Blacks did not mean that NZR had downgraded their Olympic goals.
“It (the Olympics) is a key part of our strategy,” he said. “We want our teams in black winning pinnacle events and there is nothing bigger than the Olympics.
“We don’t want our teams just turning up. The colour of the medals are really important for us.”
Anthony added that the side chosen to go to Tokyo would be the strongest one possible and they had been involved in discussions with High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) about the selection policy.
NZR received $2.1 million in government funding through HPSNZ in 2018 and 2019 to help run both the men’s and women’s sevens programmes. The women were allocated NZ$1.2 million for each year, while the men received NZ$900,000.
“We have chosen our best available players. The ones who have said they’re available and who are best for us have been chosen,” Anthony said.
“High Performance Sport have been involved in this every step of the way … and we have a great relationship with them as a key stakeholder.”
Despite being the dominant force in the sport for many years, the All Blacks sevens were knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual gold medallists Fiji when the sport made its debut at the Rio Games in 2016.
They have also not won the World Sevens Series since 2014, but won both the Commonwealth Games gold medal on the Gold Coast last year before retaining their World Cup title in San Francisco.
NZR therefore had to had to be mindful that introducing new players into the core group of centrally contracted sevens players had to be managed carefully, Anthony said.
“I think it would have been a disservice to this current group who won two pinnacle events with the Commonwealth Games gold and the World Cup last year,” he said.
“Those were massive achievements … so we were asking how can we enhance that group?
“The men coming in can all do that.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)