TOKYO, 19 Sep - In an historic first for the Rugby World Cup, 18 Olympians from nine nations are set to take to the field at Japan 2019, the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia.
Three years ago in Brazil, rugby sevens made an explosive debut at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, with the fast-paced format thrilling fans as Fiji steamrolled their way to gold, beating Great Britain 43-7 in the final. It was Fiji's first Olympic medal in any sport.
The 18 Olympians have all successfully made the switch from playing sevens at Rio 2016 to be selected for Rugby World Cup 2019, the showpiece event in the 15s game, which begins on Friday when hosts Japan take on Russia at Tokyo Stadium.
The list of Olympians features eight medallists, four of them Fijians - Leone Nakarawa, Viliame Mata, Josua Tuisova and Semi Kunatani. Nakarawa, Mata and Tuisova scored tries in the gold medal match.
Two Great Britain silver medallists Ruaridh McConnochie and James Davies, who will represent England and Wales respectively, and bronze medallists Cheslin Kolbe and Kwagga Smith from South Africa complete the line-up of Olympic medallists in Japan.
Also on the roster of Olympians are New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams and his All Blacks team-mate Rieko Ioane, who was named World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2017.
Host nation Japan have selected three Olympians from the team who finished an impressive fourth at Rio 2016, and Argentina, France and the USA also include Olympians in their World Cup squads.
Nakarawa is hoping that new stars such as Josua Tuisova and Semi Kunatani – who are both competing at their first Rugby World Cup – will add a new potency to their play.
Nakarawa, who will be competing at his third Rugby World Cup, said: “Fifteens is more about power and endurance, so repeatedly getting tackled and getting up again. But the fitness and strength you get from sevens really helps. Because of that, you never feel tired out there.”
Players have made the switch from sevens to the 15s game in the past, but the Fiji's Olympic champions are hoping that the experience they have gained from winning gold on the world’s biggest sporting stage will help them surpass their best ever performance at the Rugby World Cup. Mata said their sevens experience could help them to progress beyond the quarter-finals for the first time.
“We want to go as far as we can,” said Mata. “We’re aiming for the final. My main goal is to create history in Japan for the Fiji rugby team. There are challenges going from sevens to 15s, you don’t have as much space so it’s hard to get through the forward line, but it does give you pace, flexibility and agility. I’m trying to get a new title for my rugby career.”
While the Fijians are dreaming of reaching new heights, they are not the only team looking to draw on medal-winning experience from Rio 2016. Silver medallist McConnochie said: “The Olympics was incredible and I never thought I would be here in a national 15s side at the Rugby World Cup.
"Going into Rio we knew it would be pretty chaotic. It is good to embrace that chaos and carnage and know that it is not always going to be perfect and it is how you react and overcome that.”
South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe said: “The Olympics is one of the biggest competitions that an athlete can perform at. Getting that opportunity to represent South Africa at the Olympics was really special.
“The World Cup is probably the competition you want to achieve and play at. Just seeing, media-wise, and the supporters that come out to training, it’s really crazy.
"Each day is different, and there is a lot more energy added into training or people supporting you from outside. Both competitions are really up there.”
Rugby sevens is set to make its second appearance on the Olympic Games programme at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July and August next year, with qualification already well under way.
Rio 2016 provided a captivating showcase for the sport, whose fan-base increase by almost 17 million in six key territories. With Tokyo 2020 expected to unearth an estimated 30 million new fans worldwide (Nielsen research) it is an exciting year of rugby in Japan.