Benji, SBW, Johnson for Olympic dream team?

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:02 30/06/2013
Sonny Bill Williams, Benji Marshall, Shaun Johnson

STARS ALIGN?: The stars could align for the New Zealand sevens team for the Rio Olympics, with current rugby league stars Sonny Bill Williams, Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson potentially switching codes.

Shaun Johnson
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NURSING NIGGLES: Shaun Johnson was one of a number of Warriors players who benefitted from four days off training.
Sonny Bill Williams
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STAR SHOW: Sonny Bill Williams looks to off-load as he's grabbed by two Canterbury Bulldogs players in the Roosters' 20-18 win at ANZ Stadium.
Benji Marshall
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ON HIS WAY: Wests Tigers captain Benji Marshall runs away from the Raiders defence after a line-break during their 17-12 win in Canberra.

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The stars could be aligning for a New Zealand sevens dream team.

Sir John Kirwan's courting of Benji Marshall could see the former Kiwis captain potentially link with dual-code sensation Sonny Bill Williams and Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The pulling power of a gold medal in Rio is already starting to take effect.

After his side swept aside the Hurricanes on Friday night, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie emphasised his belief that Williams will return to rugby and Hamilton in time for the 2015 World Cup and the Olympics the following year.

"We're certainly talking to him," Rennie said. "We're pretty confident he'll be back in 2015."

Johnson, regarded as the Warriors' and the Kiwis' best emerging attacking talent, said publicly last year he was keen to chase an Olympics gold medal.

"It's something I'm very interested in," Johnson said. "Watching the Olympics, seeing all the athletes and what sort of event it is - it's unreal. Sevens is something I've always enjoyed watching. It's another challenge."

A New Zealand Olympic squad featuring the best of current sevens talent, along with the playmaking guile of Marshall and Johnson and the pace, power and skill of Williams, is a compelling proposition for national coach Sir Gordon Tietjens.

The New Zealand Rugby Union has not engineered these moves, but must be tempted to take advantage of what is unfolding. Helping Kirwan bring Marshall to Auckland would create big benefits beyond the Blues.

Sevens and touch rugby share similar attacking skill sets and strategies. Both Marshall and Johnson nursed their creative instincts on touch football fields. Within sevens, they have the potential to play comparable roles to New Zealand's Tomasi Cama and Fijian legend Waisale Serevi.

If he can secure Marshall's services next year, Kirwan believes the 28-year-old could be a success in both the 15-man and sevens games.

"He'd probably need a year to settle, but I'm pretty confident he's got the ability to do it," Kirwan said.

"We'll now wait and see what Benji wants to do."

Williams could be the Michael Jordan of sevens. With his offloading ability, carrying the ball in one hand and holding off defenders, he would revolutionise sevens and appeal as a massive marketing tool for the game.

Williams, 27, is likely to play a second season for the Roosters in the NRL next year, but is known to hunger for personal achievements. Playing in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and chasing a gold medal in Rio the following year would seem to fit perfectly into those ambitions.

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Adjusting to Tietjens' intense fitness requirements would be the toughest task for the trio. But for Marshall and Johnson, switching to sevens - a game with more freedom and less focus on the foreign laws of the breakdown - would be easier than rugby.

Chiefs assistant coach and former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith believes Marshall would be a great acquisition for New Zealand rugby.

"He hasn't played that well this year, but if he can get back to where he was … he was very special."

Kirwan defended Marshall's defensive capabilities and Smith felt he could be used similarly to Reds coach Ewen McKenzie protecting Quade Cooper at fullback.

"You might have to be a bit creative there," Smith said. "You wouldn't want to defend him in close anyway, because he's too important out wide on the counterattack." 

- Sunday Star Times

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