Kwagga Smith won the Bronze medal with Team South Africa at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Hollywoodbets

TOKYO – In an historic first for the Rugby World Cup, 18 Olympians from nine nations – including two from South Africa - are set to take to the field at Japan 2019, the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia.

Three years ago in Brazil, rugby sevens made an explosive debut at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, with the fast-paced format thrilling fans as Fiji steamrolled their way to gold, beating Great Britain 43-7 in the final. It was Fiji's first Olympic medal in any sport.

The 18 Olympians have all successfully made the switch from playing sevens at Rio 2016 to be selected for Rugby World Cup 2019, the showpiece event in the 15s game, which begins on Friday when hosts Japan take on Russia at Tokyo Stadium.

Rugby Sevens Olympians at the 2019 RWC. Graphic: Rugby World Cup on facebook

The list of Olympians features eight medallists, including South Africa’s bronze medallists Cheslin Kolbe and Kwagga Smith.

Four of the medalists are Fijians - Leone Nakarawa, Viliame Mata, Josua Tuisova and Semi Kunatani. Nakarawa, Mata and Tuisova scored tries in the gold medal match.

Two Great Britain silver medallists Ruaridh McConnochie and James Davies, who will represent England and Wales respectively complete the line-up of Olympic medallists in Japan.

Also on the roster of Olympians are New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams and his All Blacks team-mate Rieko Ioane, who was named World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2017.

Host nation Japan have selected three Olympians from the team who finished an impressive fourth at Rio 2016, and Argentina, France and the USA also include Olympians in their World Cup squads.

Players have made the switch from sevens to the 15s game in the past, but the Fiji's Olympic champions are hoping that the experience they have gained from winning gold on the world’s biggest sporting stage will help them surpass their best ever performance at the Rugby World Cup.

South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe said: “The Olympics is one of the biggest competitions that an athlete can perform at. Getting that opportunity to represent South Africa at the Olympics was really special.

“The World Cup is probably the competition you want to achieve and play at. Just seeing, media-wise, and the supporters that come out to training, it’s really crazy.

“Each day is different, and there is a lot more energy added into training or people supporting you from outside. Both competitions are really up there.”

Cheslin Kolbe won the Bronze medal with Team South Africa at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Hollywoodbets
Cheslin Kolbe won the Bronze medal with Team South Africa at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Hollywoodbets

Rugby sevens is set to make its second appearance on the Olympic Games programme at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July and August next year, with qualification already well under way.

Sport Reporter