Sarah Hirini was caught off guard when she received a call from Rob Waddell, the Chef de Mission of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, during a Black Ferns Sevens training camp.

Waddell had contacted Hirini to ask if she would like to act as Te Pou Hapai Wahine, the female flag-bearer, for the country’s athletes at the Opening Ceremony of Tokyo 2020 later this month.

Hirini and her husband Conor had discussed who they thought would be afforded the honour of leading out New Zealand’s Olympians, but the Black Ferns Sevens captain admits it didn’t cross her mind that she might be in line for the honour.

Rendered speechless by the request, the Rio 2016 silver medallist thought it best to phone Waddell back to make sure he had not mistaken her shock for indifference.

“I’m still absolutely speechless by the whole situation. Since I've been told it's just been pretty crazy,” Hirini told World Rugby. 

“But, it's a huge honour. It's a really, really massive thing for me and my family and I'm just really excited that I, one, get to represent my country again but, two, to be able to lead my country on the biggest stage possible.”

She added: “I was just at the training base one day and he (Waddell) just asked if I'd like to be the woman flag-bearer for New Zealand. 

“I pretty much didn't say a lot back to him. I just cried a little bit and thought about my mum and my husband and stuff like that. 

“So, I ended up having to give him a call back to say that I'd be pretty keen for it. But, it's a big deal, it’s pretty emotional and very, very special. 

“So, I don't think it will really feel real until I actually do it because of how surreal it is.”

‘A Games like no other’

Hirini, who was presented with a ceremonial kākahu (cloak) last month, will lead New Zealand’s athletes into Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium on 23 July, alongside male flag-bearer Hamish Bond.

There will be no fans present to witness their special moment, or any of the events during the Games, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Although Tokyo 2020 promises to be a very different Games to the one she experienced in Rio five years ago, Hirini is able to see the positives in appearing at an Olympics during a pandemic.

“Everything's going to be different about the Games, but that's the exciting piece as well as we get to experience a Games like no other,” she said. 

“We're just having to go into it with a completely different mindset, and it does force us to be in our own bubble, to only focus on ourselves. 

“And, I think that the external distractions are going to be a lot less, which is probably not a bad thing.”

Guarding against complacency

New Zealand’s women’s sevens players do not need to look far for motivating factors heading into the Games, having been beaten to the gold medal at Rio 2016 by Australia.

The Black Ferns Sevens have since won three of four HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles, as well as Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 and Commonwealth Games gold in the same year.

Following a break from international competition of more than 400 days due to the pandemic, the team have played Australia eight times across May’s Trans-Tasman Sevens and last month’s Oceania Sevens.

New Zealand won seven of those matches, but while Hirini believes the squad’s depth will give them an advantage in Tokyo, she insists they cannot afford to rest on their laurels as they prepare for the start of the women’s tournament on 29 July.

“We're pretty happy with how we have been progressing,” Hirini said. 

“But, as you can tell with sevens, anything's possible and we can't sit back and think that we're in a really good place or we were in a good place three weeks ago. 

“Because, yes, we've beaten Aussie a few times, but they are going to be a different team in a couple of weeks. We haven't played the European teams, the American teams, Canada. No one like that. 

“So, we can't be naive and think that we're in a good place at the moment. We have to be trying everything we possibly can to make sure that at least we put everything we have out there.”

Should they do that then it would take a monumental effort to divert the Black Ferns Sevens from their goal.

As someone who has already achieved so much during her career, and who has a Rugby World Cup 2017 winner’s medal nestled amongst her sevens accolades, where would Olympic glory rank?

“Winning a medal for your country is amazing,” she said. “But if we were successful and we’re able to bring home a gold for New Zealand, then it would definitely be celebrated with our families in the country for a long time.

“The Olympics is the pinnacle of any sport in the world. So, if that was a possibility and that came true in a couple of weeks’ time then it would definitely be the number one thing of my career.”

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