Walsh confirms talks with Kerevi, McMahon to play sevens at 2020 Olympics

Mens - Dubai
by Iain Payten

Australian sevens coach Tim Walsh has confirmed he is talking to Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon about taking a shot at the 2020 Olympic team, and believes it would be “a massive coup for Australian rugby” for them to wear gold jerseys again.

Kerevi and McMahon are both based on Japan, playing for Suntory Sungoliath, and are among a number of players who have either personally, or through their agents, contacted Walsh in the last three weeks after the Australian team qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in Fiji.

The Australian men’s squad beat Samoa to book their place for the 2020 Games, which will be held in late July in Japan.

Walsh has been in dialogue with McMahon, who last played for the Wallabies in 2017, for some time about a return to sevens. The abrasive flanker played for the Australian sevens team between 2012 and 2015 and won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Walsh said Kerevi, who was the Wallabies vice-captain before moving to Japan on a three-year deal after the World Cup, has also expressed interest in past years about playing sevens and genuine talks have escalated in recent months.

"He (Kerevi) has obviously signed over in Japan and is at the peak of his game, really,” Walsh said.

"To see him back in an Australian jersey would be huge for Australian rugby and massive for sevens. Is he a guy of interest? Yeah.

"Sean fits in perfectly  …. he has played a lot of sevens and launched his career (in sevens). 

"Because of his position now with him playing in Japan, to have at least engaged in conversations with Kerevi and McMahon, who are probably at the peak of their game, to get them back in a gold jersey would be a massive coup for rugby in Australia.”

Asked if Kerevi would have the neccesary sevens experience, Walsh said: "He has played a fair bit of sevens actually.”

"He played in the NewStar sevens team and he has shown a lot of interest in the past about playing sevens. And yes, the Fijian background, it is a religion over there. He certainly has the skill that could fit in well,” Walsh said.

"Would he have to prove himself? Yes. It’s not like ‘Kerevi is available, pick him’. It’s Kerevi is available, here is your shot. It’s not a definite."

Wallabies and Rebels back Jack Maddocks is also a decent chance to play in Tokyo, having joined the Aussie sevens squad when he missed out on a World Cup spot, and recently helped the team win the Oceania tournament.

Though never offering any guarantees, Walsh said he was “always interested" in talking to Wallabies players about them talking a shot at making the Olympics.

Gold medallists Fiji and bronze-medallists South Africa both had 15s players in their squads in 2016 - albeit all men who’d previously played in sevens.

"In reality, some of the Wallabies running around are some of the best players in Australia, if not the world, so if some of them want to play or are interested, of course I am going to be open to it. But it has to fit and they have to have the right fitness levels and the right experience to do it,” Walsh said.

But as the Australian sevens team under Andy Friend discovered with Quade Cooper and Henry Speight ahead of the 2016 Olympics, the difficulty of bringing 15s players into a sevens program comes down almost entirely to timing and schedules.

Needing to get fit enough and to develop cohesion with the current squad, Walsh said any player hoping to switch would need to play in “three or four” World Sevens Series legs, and then be with the team for the two months prior to the Olympics in July.

Super Rugby commitments and a Test season now beginning in July make it highly unlikely a swag of Wallabies will try the switch, unless it’s along the lines of Maddocks’ approved format juggle.

So the Japanese Top League season, which runs later than usual but still finishes in May, would potentially be a better fit for a shot at making the Olympics. Kerevi and McMahon would still need to be released by their club, mid-season, for a handful of week-long sevens trips and Australian rugby would also have to undoubtedly strike suitable financial arrangements.

Asked how the current squad would react to Walsh’s openness to bringing in Wallabies or overseas-based stars like McMahon and Kerevi, the coach said: "They’d be threatened to a point, others would be really excited.”

"But in reality it’s about competition and making the program better,” he continued.

"We are talking about a couple of players who are world class players and proven, in McMahon’s case, in both sevens and fifteens. I am not going to talk to 15 players and bring them in and play. It’s adding one or two players that can possibly add some real value to our campaign and not disrupt … our cohesion and combinations. The who, how and why are strategic.”