Star All Blacks and Blues winger Caleb Clarke is expected to confirm his footballing future on Monday. Liam Napier exclusively reveals the decision the 22-year-old has made.
Caleb Clarke has committed his immediate future to chasing a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics with the New Zealand sevens team.
After much deliberation this year, the Herald understands Clarke has elected to skip playing for the Blues in the Super Rugby Transtasman competition, which gets underway next week, and several All Blacks tests in favour of pursuing the opportunity to feature at the Olympics.
The 22-year-old will join Chiefs wing Etene Nanai-Seturo and Highlanders fullback Vilimoni Koroi as one of three Super Rugby players – and the only All Black – to join the men's sevens team in their quest for gold.
In a surprise move earlier this week, Hurricanes wing Salesi Rayasi opted out of rejoining the sevens team at late notice, while no Crusaders players expressed interest in competing on the Olympic stage.
Clarke's decision is expected to be confirmed on Monday when he, Nanai-Seturo and Koroi are due to join the men's sevens team at their Mount Maunganui base.
However, the Herald understands Clarke is so keen to enjoy a smooth transition he has already joined the sevens squad.
Koroi, unused by the Highlanders this season, has been training with the sevens team for much of the year while Nanai-Seturo, sitting second in defenders beaten this season, starts on the wing in Saturday's Super Rugby Aotearoa final against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Clarke's intent to chase Olympic gold will preclude him from representing the All Blacks in July for three tests against Fiji and possibly Samoa.
With the Olympics scheduled to be staged from July 23 to August 8, and athletes then having to quarantine for two weeks on return home, Clarke is unlikely to feature for the All Blacks in three successive Bledisloe Cup tests set down for August 7, 14 and 21.
Clarke enjoyed a breakout 2020 season after linking with the Blues once the sevens circuit shutdown due to the global pandemic, and always planned to compete at the Olympics before the Games were postponed for a year.
Clarke's form on the left wing for the Blues proved irresistible as he progressed to play five tests for the All Blacks in his debut season; starring at Eden Park against the Wallabies.
This season Clarke has been comparatively quiet for the Blues while he weighed whether to follow his Olympic dream. A stint with the sevens team could help recapture the freedom, work rate and silky aerial skills he frequently showcased last year.
New Zealand men's sevens coach Clark Laidlaw expects his XVs players to make a seamless switch back to the abbreviated game.
"We've got the numbers around what they've been doing with their Super Rugby clubs which allows us to run a good transition," Laidlaw said. "The overall volume of work is really similar it's just the intensity. Those boys have been here before, they know what it looks like."
Laidlaw was restricted by New Zealand Rugby to selecting one player from each Super Rugby franchise for the Olympics - ruling out the prospect of luring in-form Highlanders wing Jona Nareki.
Laidlaw indicated the timing of Rayasi's decision made it too difficult to approach anyone else from the Hurricanes. The Herald understands Rayasi has not returned calls or texts to convey the reasons for his decision.
"There probably would have been a couple of others if we had a decision earlier. We would have loved Salesi to come. He's a game breaker for us so we gave him that time but it's his decision to stay there," Laidlaw said.
"We've tried really hard to work with Super Rugby clubs. We've produced seven Super Rugby players in the last three years so we continue to try have those conversations and work with them on certain players. It's a constant evolution of that relationship.
"I can't convince people who have never been here before what we can do. It's definitely easier when you've had boys here who want to come back."
New Zealand's 2016 men's Olympic squad, when sevens made its Games debut in Rio, featured Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko and Akira Ioane while Liam Messam missed selection in the team that failed to medal after finishing fifth.
This time around Laidlaw opened the door to all New Zealand's leading talent, but interest has not been reciprocated.
"We don't feel like we need to be dropping people in just because they want to be part of the Olympics. We've spent four years developing our performance culture so we're not interested in people coming here for their own good.
"People will say 'why don't you have Damian McKenzie, Ardie Savea?' Everyone had the same opportunity to stick their hands up. We've got 22 boys who all want to be here and are bleeding every day to try make the team.
"We've built a team here that we know can win because it's won big tournaments and the World Series over the past three years.
"I'm more than comfortable with the team we've got."
In preparation for the Olympics, New Zealand's men's and women's sevens teams will play Australia from May 21-23 in Auckland. It will be the first time the men have faced Australia in 440 days, since winning last year's Vancouver tournament final.
Laidlaw's team plan to leave early for Tokyo to play Australia and Fiji in Australia at the back end of June.
Despite continued uncertainty shrouding the Olympics, with Japan extending its Covid-19 state of emergency from April 23 until the end of May, Laidlaw remains hopeful the Games will proceed.
"There's no second chances around preparation. There's 90 odd days until we play and every day counts. If it was to get pulled at the very last minute then it's well out of our control and Japan must be in a really dark place.
"We've got to be realistic around how grateful we are to live in this country and prepare the way we have been. If it goes ahead, which we think it will at this stage, we're going to be as ready as we can be."