If Sonny Bill Williams was to win an Olympic medal in Rio it would come nowhere near the two Rugby World Cup winner’s medals he has in his possession, but he would certainly be keeping hold of it.
The All Blacks legend famously gave his medal away after New Zealand beat Australia to win their second successive global title at Twickenham last autumn. A young fan who had ran on to the pitch during the Kiwis’ lap of honour was slightly harshly dealt with by security and Williams made a spontaneous act of generosity which would later be rewarded by World Rugby giving the centre a replica replacement.
However, any Olympic medal will be staying resolutely in the family. “My wife has already said that if, God willing, I win a medal, then it’s going straight on my daughter – I can’t give it away,” said Williams.
Williams is the most high-profile player who will compete at the Deodoro Stadium and an Olympic gold would complete a remarkable set of achievements for New Zealand’s greatest sportsman since the late Jonah Lomu. Along with those two Rugby World Cups in 2011 and 2015, he also has a Rugby League World Cup runners-up medal, titles in both the Australian NRL and Super Rugby, not to mention being a former New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion.
While the abbreviated game is making its debut in the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza, it will be a return for rugby football after 92 years. The United States may seem like unlikely Olympic champions but they were the last winners back in Paris 1924. That said, they are now a pretty decent sevens outfit – sixth in this year’s world series and with a Cup win at Twickenham to their name last year – and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that they effectively retain their Olympic crown.
When Japan defeated South Africa at last year’s World Cup, it came as an almighty shock in a sport which doesn’t really favour the underdogs.
Not so in sevens, where the compact form of the game and space for speed merchants to flourish makes it more conducive to unpredictability.
Kenya won the Singapore Sevens on the world circuit last year and will be dangerous opposition for Great Britain in their first pool match. Team GB will be hoping to beat the Africans and Japan and have their place in the knockout phase sealed before they face Williams’ New Zealand in the final group game.
Two Scots are part of the British squad – with Scotland and Glasgow centre Mark Bennett, pictured below, the most high-profile 15s player included in the 12-man pool. Sevens specialist Mark Robertson, who hails from the birthplace of sevens, Melrose, is the other.
Scotland Sevens won their first ever Cup title at Twickenham in the last event of the 2015-16 calendar and can feel slightly disappointed with their representation. However, when England secured the GB qualification it wasn’t inconceivable that their coach Simon Amor, who leads the Olympic team, would stick with an all-English line-up. In the end, two Welshmen have also been included in the squad alongside the Scots duo.
For Bennett it has justified the gamble he took when he opted out of Scotland’s Japan tour to follow his Olympic dream. In the general scheme of the 23-year-old’s career, which has already seen him win a Guinness Pro12 title and be named World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2015, Rio won’t be the pinnacle but it is sure to be a memorable experience.
The women’s tournament kicks off on 6 August, with the GB squad – 11 Englishwomen and one Welshwoman – facing hosts Brazil, Japan and Canada in their pool.
The men’s tounament begins on 9 August, when GB will take on Kenya in the morning and Japan in the afternoon.