For some of the biggest names in rugby sevens, the Tokyo Olympics was the perfect stage to bid farewell to the game they have served so well over many years.
Nathan Hirayama has been a virtual ever-present for Canada on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series since making his debut in the competition as an 18-year-old in Dubai in 2008.
Now 33, Hirayama has decided to call time on a stellar career that saw him serve his country in both rugby sevens and 15s, coming in four Rugby World Cups – three in the former and one in the latter.
But it was in the shorter format of the game where the prolific points-scorer and brilliant playmaker excelled.
Hirayama finished his career as Canada’s most-capped player (79 tournaments), top try-scorer (147) and all-time record points-scorer on the World Series, his tally of 1,859 points putting him third overall, with only Ben Gollings (England) and Tomasi Cama (New Zealand) having managed more.
Such is Hirayama’s standing in the eyes of his countrymen, he was Olympic flag-bearer at the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony.
Hirayama wrote on Instagram: “It’s been an honour to wear the maple leaf on my chest and to have been able to compete against the world’s best, alongside my friends. Truly a dream come true for a kid from Richmond who fell in love with rugby in high school.
“I’ll always care deeply about this game, and I’m looking forward to supporting the next/future gen of rugby players both here in Canada and around the world however I can. Thank you all for everything.”
Pros and cons
Joining him in retirement post-Olympics are fellow Canadians and dual sevens/15s internationals, Conor Trainor and Connor Braid.
Trainor made his World Series debut in Wellington in February 2010 and went on to appear in 42 tournaments on the circuit. He also played in the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Switching back and forth between sevens and 15s, Trainor joined a select band of Canadians to play in three Rugby World Cups (2011-19) in the longer format of the game.
Following Canada’s failure to qualify for the Rio 2016, Trainor took a four-year break from sevens before returning in time to fulfil his Olympic dream in Tokyo.
Braid, 31, made his World Series debut the season after Trainor and went on to play in 33 tournaments. He also appeared at two Commonwealth Games (2014 and 2018) and at RWC Sevens 2018, in addition to winning 26 caps in 15s.
While Hirayama, Braid and Trainor were all over 30, 27-year-old Justin Douglas has added his name to the list of Canadian retirees.
Douglas scored 145 World Series tries, second only to Hirayama, and was a key figure in the team's most celebrated moments.
Prior to the Tokyo Olympics, Douglas was part of Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and also played at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2013 and 2018. He represented Canada at the 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Douglas was also part of Canada's historic Cup win in Singapore in 2017, the same year he was named Canada men's sevens player of the year.
It’s Benn emotional!
Canadian rugby fans will also have to get used to life without Brittany Benn.
A centre in 15s, Benn was a member of Canada’s silver medal-winning squad at Rugby World Cup 2014, but it was in sevens that she represented Canada the majority of times.
She made her World Series debut in Atlanta in March 2015 and quickly became a mainstay of the team.
At Rio 2016, she played in all six matches as Canada took the bronze medal at Great Britain’s expense.
Post-Olympics, she took up a job as a firefighter but continued to play for her country, pulling on the red jersey at Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Benn’s second Olympics in Tokyo did not come with another medal but her 60-metre try against Brazil, when she clocked a top speed of 29 km/hour, was a great way to sign off.
High and Dry
Outside of Canada, there were three more big stars of the game to announce their retirements after the dust had settled on the Tokyo Games – Chris Dry (South Africa), Andrew Amonde (Kenya) and France captain Fanny Horta.
Finishing off at the Olympics felt right for Dry, the second most capped Blitzbok of all time (behind Branco du Preez) as he was an unused travelling reserve for Rio 2016.
“After the previous Olympics there was always a push to be part of the next one,” said Dry.
“But since 2018, after the knee injury that kept me out for a year, every tournament I played with this amazing team became a bonus and a blessing. So, everything in the last couple of seasons became extras, more than I expected.”
The teak-tough forward Dry made his debut in 2010 in Adelaide, Australia, and went on to represent the Blitzboks in 74 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournaments, which featured 373 matches and 98 tries.
Dry is a two-time World Series champion with the Blitzboks, and made the HSBC Dream team in 2017.
He also represented South Africa at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 and won gold with the team at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
“As a competitive rugby player, you always believe you have one more season in you, but it is time to step away from the game that gave me so much over the last decade and more,” said Dry.
“Age did become a factor; it is harder and harder to keep pace with a game as fast as international sevens.
“I also had hip surgery recently and it became quite a fight to keep up. Also, finishing off your career at the Olympic Games, knowing you left while still being selected for a squad was always the ideal for me. So, I leave happy and on my terms,” he explained.
Long-time Shujaa captain Andrew Amonde led his country with distinction over many years and lifted the trophy when the team won their only World Series tournament in Singapore in 2016.
A veteran of the World Series, Amonde played in 76 tournaments for Kenya, scoring 64 tries.
Besides captaining Kenya to a fourth-place finish at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013, the towering forward led Kenya at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and was flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony in the latter.
He also played at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 and in three Commonwealth Games (2010, 2014 and 2018) as well as representing his country at 15s on no less than 21 occasions.
Amonde, 37, is not packing in rugby altogether as he still intends to carry on playing for his club, KCB RFC, while also progressing his career as a strength and conditioning coach.
“I’m very excited about my next chapter in life and what that will look like. For now, I am emotional to walk away from playing but the timing is right and it was an honour to captain both the Kenya Sevens team and Team Kenya for my last milestone at the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Rugby will always be a part of my life so from the bottom of my heart, thank you all,” he wrote on social media.
Horta’s silver lining
Meanwhile, 35-year-old France captain Horta has closed the book on a glittering career that was crowned with a silver medal in Tokyo.
It was her second silver medal at a major tournament having led France to the runners-up spot at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco.
Horta also appeared in the two previous RWC Sevens tournaments, in 2009 and 2013, as well as leading her country at Rio 2016, and was a permanent fixture on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series for nine years.
A winger in 15s, the silky runner played for Les Bleues in 15s at RWC 2006 and RWC 2010.
“I am ending my career that I never would have hoped to be so extraordinary and rewarding,” she posted on Instagram. “I loved living these adventures with you.”