With the Tokyo Olympics now only mere months away, excitement for the return of rugby sevens on sport's biggest stage is building. And who better to add to the anticipation than Fiji’s Olympic gold medal-winning coach Ben Ryan?
Fiji’s exploits in Rio were voted the male team performance of the 2016 Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Never before had Fiji won a medal at the Olympics, let alone the top prize – in any sport – and the accolade summed up the enormity of their achievement, which was also marked back home with the declaration of a public holiday.
But it was not just Fijian rugby that had reached new heights, the re-admittance of rugby to the Olympics – in sevens as opposed to 15s, the format used when it was last played in the 1920s – had done wonders for the sport as a whole.
“The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the calendar and getting into the Olympic family has given rugby extra credibility as well as opening a lot of doors at almost every level in terms of new territories, new supporters, new commercial opportunities, and more links into elite sport,” said Ryan.
“It is something we really need to build on as well as we possibly can over the next couple of cycles. That means having exciting games at the Olympics, having a clean sport and creating some superstars. We did all of those things in Rio.”
Here Ryan reveals who he thinks will shine in the men's tournament this year.
Jerry Tuwai (Fiji)
Arguably the best player in world rugby for the last three to four years. With his mesmerising attack and his clamp-like defence as a sweeper, he is incredibly important on both sides of the ball. I’d say his footwork is up there with Waisale Serevi and William Ryder. If Jerry is playing well, you can see the rest of the side all have an extra skip in their stride. A gold medal winner in Rio, he has also been a part of this amazing run that Fiji has had in winning five consecutive Hong Kong Sevens titles.
Maurice Longbottom (Australia)
He came across from the NRL and has developed into one of these X-factor players. Whenever he gets the ball, he really does some magical things and, on his day, he is as good as anyone in the world. He has amazing acceleration and can break open the tightest of defences. Whereas Australia used to put him on the field to get a try and turn a game for them, they’ve worked on his fitness and he’s now playing full games and full tournaments. He’s given them an added dimension.
Caleb Clarke (New Zealand)
An incredibly powerful player who is already carving it up for the Blues in Super Rugby. He is not a Lomu, but he plays that type of role, at either centre or wing. I’ve seen him run around some very fast sevens wingers, but he also has the ability to bump off defenders in contact and hits hard. He is the perfect blueprint really as to how you can use sevens to develop a player. I think he’ll be a future All Black.
Nathan Hirayama (Canada)
Has been around the scene for a long time and is like a Ben Gollings with his ability to control a game and to kick vital points. Most good things Canada do revolve around him. If Canada can get to the quarter-finals and he has one of the games of his life, then there is no reason why they can’t cause an upset.
Perry Baker (USA)
Was part of the USA team that had a disappointing Olympics in Rio despite the hype around them. I don’t think they’ll make the same mistakes twice, though. He has got incredible amounts of pace, but he is also a very well-rounded footballer who distributes well and understands space and is a constant threat. A match-winner who is also very much part of their kick-chase game.
Selvyn Davids (South Africa)
Relatively new to the scene but is slowly replacing Cecil Afrika as that midfield dynamo for South Africa. His constant half-breaks allow his team to get on the front foot and he also gets through an incredible amount of work. If he continues on this path that he has had pre-lockdown, then he is going to be a serious part of South Africa’s tilt at a gold medal in Toyko.
Santiago Mare (Argentina)
A big unit – over 100kgs – he is one of those who can mix it with the most powerful Pacific Islanders, South Africans and Kiwis. He has got a good turn of pace, can ride tackles and can play a roving role at centre, or in the forwards if they need him to. Argentina were very unlucky in the last Olympics, but I think if people like him are on form in Tokyo, then they could be a team with the ability to cause a serious surprise.