All Blacks star Caleb Clarke could be off-limits for Blues as Olympics beckon

Olympic hopefuls such as All Blacks winger Caleb Clarke are likely to switch to sevens in May and potentially miss at least five weeks of Super Rugby.

Tony Philp, New Zealand Rugby’s high performance sevens manager, is hoping May is the return date for New Zealand’s men’s and women’s sevens teams’ comeback to the international game.

Neither team have played in an international tournament since the Covid-19 pandemic halted their respective World Series last March.

Clarke is among a small pool of Super Rugby players eyeing an Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games in July, but their commitment to Super Rugby Aotearoa means they’re not training under coach Clark Laidlaw with the men’s sevens team for the meantime.

As well as Clarke, who played in New Zealand’s victory at the last sevens World Series event in Vancouver before his breakout season in 15s for the Blues and the All Blacks, wingers Etene Nanai-Seturo (Chiefs) and Salesi Rayasi (Hurricanes) are in the mix for Toyko, as is Clarke’s Super Rugby team-mate, rookie Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.

That quartet have been with their Super Rugby teams since pre-season in the summer.

Another contender is Highlanders flyer Jona Nareki, although he last played sevens in black in 2019 and appears to have committed to the 15s game.

Philp said those Super Rugby players would need to come into the sevens environment in May to improve their chances of selection for the Olympics.

The men’s and women’s tournaments at the Tokyo Games run consecutively from July 26-31.

“Super Rugby Aotearoa is the priority for them at the moment, but our coaches are in good dialogue with those players who’ve expressed an interest,” Philp told Stuff.

“They will need to come into our environment, get some game time, and get back into the culture and performance side of the team.”

The Super Rugby Aotearoa final is May 8. Super Rugby’s trans-Tasman competition is due to start the following weekend, Covid-19 permitting, with its final scheduled for June 19.

Each Kiwi team plays their five Australian counterparts in five rounds from May 14 to June 12 and the top two contest the decider, so Clarke, Nanai-Seturo, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Rayasi could be unavailable for Super Rugby’s trans-Tasman fixtures.

Philp said there wouldn’t be late call-ups for players who’ve not been in recent squads, ruling out the prospect of additional All Blacks switching to sevens for the Olympics.

“They will be players who’ve played with us before,” he said.

“It’s a big ask for anyone to come into an environment and understand the team culture that Clark and the coaches have built, as well as pick up a game plan and perform at the Olympics.”

Possible candidates could have been 2016 Olympians, Blues brothers Akira and Rieko Ioane, and Crusaders winger Sevu Reece, who all have a sevens background, but their inclusions are highly unlikely.

Meanwhile, Philp said they’re hopeful of arranging sevens tournaments in May and June (hosted in Australia or New Zealand) to boost preparations for the Olympics, but they’re waiting on the April 6 announcement about the start date for the trans-Tasman bubble.

He said the first window for those competitions would probably be after the Super Rugby Aotearoa final.