MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Joseph Suaalii has “world class” attributes to succeed in rugby sevens but playing at the Tokyo Olympics would be a big ask of the schoolboy prodigy, Australia head coach Tim Walsh said on Tuesday.
Suaalii, who turned 17 on Saturday and is seen as a rare athletic talent, has generated huge hype in Australia as rival rugby union and rugby league federations fight for his signature.
Rugby Australia (RA) hope to coax Suaalii away from a National Rugby League career, months after he signed a junior contract with the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Signing with RA would not only mean a potential pathway to a Wallabies jersey but also a chance to win an Olympic medal for Australia in sevens as soon as next year.
Walsh, who guided Australia’s women to sevens gold at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, welcomed Suaalii’s Olympic ambitions while expressing concern for the “ridiculous” pressure on the teenager.
“From what I hear, he’s a kid who wants to go to the Olympics. That’s a massive drawcard. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world and we get to go,” Walsh told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
“Would I entertain the idea? Of course I would, especially having a year now to prepare for Tokyo.
“It is a big ask but if he had a specific role that I wanted him to perform and it worked out with the combination and the balance of the team, then there’s certainly the potential there for selection.”
Suaalii has played junior rugby sevens for Australia and is a pupil at the King’s School, a rugby union nursery in Sydney.
He has been on RA’s radar for years and touted as the “next Israel Folau”, in reference to the explosive former Wallabies fullback who also played rugby league for Australia.
However, South Sydney have shown their determination to retain him, with part-owner and Hollywood actor Russell Crowe flying Suaalii and his family up to his rural estate in New South Wales by private jet last month.
Asked whether the hype was warranted, Walsh said Suaalii had impressed when he trained with his sevens squad two years ago.
“Even then he just had some world class attributes that were very much suited to sevens. An athlete like him, he could be suited to anything,” said Walsh.
“He’s quite unique. You don’t get many 6ft-5, 6ft-6 guys that have great aerial skills, run fast and are powerful. You’ve got your Sonny Bill Williams (comparison), I guess. That kind of mould.”
Walsh was more cautious about declaring Suaalii an Olympic starter for Tokyo, however, believing “greatness” in sevens usually means up to four years’ hard work in the sport.
A slew of seasoned players from top flight rugby union, including former Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper, have also failed to adapt to sevens’ all-round demands.
“In rugby league ... you have a specific job. Even in 15’s rugby you might have a specific job,” said Walsh.
“But in sevens you can’t, you have to be a decision-maker, a jack of all trades and master of some. If you’re identified as a weakness or a mismatch in any of those skills, you’ll get hammered.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Toby Davis
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