Tokyo Olympics 2021: All Blacks star Caleb Clarke misses out on sevens selection

All Blacks flyer Caleb Clarke is the shock omission in the New Zealand sevens team for the Tokyo Olympics later this month.

The 22-year-old left the Blues after their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign to join the national sevens set-up in a bid to compete in Japan, foregoing his chance to add to his five All Blacks appearances against Tonga and Fiji this month.

But Clarke has not been named in the 12-man squad, although he will join the group in Japan as a travelling reserve.

Coach Clark Laidlaw has favoured Chiefs back Etene Nanai-Seturo and Regan Ware to fill the role Clarke would occupy, as part of what he calls the toughest team selection he's made yet.

“Going to Olympics is the pinnacle of four or five years work," says Laidlaw. 

"We were conscious of that as coaches and selectors, so we made sure we were really clear on how we want to play the game, where the players were at, and picked the best team to go forward."

Clarke featured during last weekend's Oceania Sevens in Townsville, where the All Blacks Sevens were beaten twice by Fiji.

Laidlaw says Clarke's lack of experience at pinnacle events counted against him, as did his inability to play multiple positions, which was paramount given the lesson learned at Rio 2016, when the squad was ravaged by injury early in the competition.

Then 18-year-old Clarke was also a travelling reserve for the team's Gold Coast Commonwealth Games bid in 2018.

"It was a really tight decision," Laidlaw confesses.

"Caleb obviously came in a little bit later than the rest of the squad and has a little bit less experience than someone like Regan Ware.

"Really it's that balance between attack and defence.. Guys being able to play a couple of positions across that back division.

"What we've found in the last wee while, with no proper tournaments, it's not helped some of the guys who don't have a lot of tournaments behind them.

"The players with experience and the rhythm within the team.. probably tipped it in those guys' favours."

Laidlaw stresses versatility was a key consideration in composing the squad, given the demanding summer conditions they'll face in Japan.

"When you’ve only got 12 players for one tournament, and it could be 40 degrees with high humidity, having players who can rotate and share the load throughout a weekend and still nail their core role is important," he says. 

"We've selected backs who can change positions and that is genuinely important."

Also left out is Vilimoni Koroi, whose game-breaking talent has been a mainstay in the All Blacks Sevens squads at big tournaments since 2017.

The squad boasts a wealth of experience, with co-captain Tim Mikkelson the most capped sevens player in the game’s history.  He's joined by Scott Curry and Sam Dickson, who have more than 50 World Series tournament appearances each.

"We don't usually name a team a month out from a tournament, and we’ve got some players that got dinged up a little bit in the weekend," Laidlaw adds.

"All the players in our contracted group need to continue to prepare as if they are going to play and in all the conversations we've had, they certainly understand that."

The men - currently ranked world No. 1 - are in Pool A at the Olympics alongside Australia, Argentina and South Korea, kicking off on July 26.

New Zealand Men's Rugby Sevens team: Tim Mikkelson (co-capt), Scott Curry (co-capt), Dylan Collier, Tone Ng Shiu, Sam Dickson, Andrew Knewstubb, Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, Sione Molia, Kurt Baker, Joe Webber, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Regan Ware

Travelling reserves: William Warbrick, Caleb Clarke, Amanaki Nicole

Non-travelling reserves: Akuila Rokolisoa, Trael Joass, Kitiona Vai, Vilimoni Koroi, Brady Rush, Oliver Sapsford, Moses Leo, Leroy Carter