Otago players eyeing spot at Olympics

Otago flag football team members (from left) Mitchell Barnes, Jack Scherson, Tom Rance and...
Otago flag football team members (from left) Mitchell Barnes, Jack Scherson, Tom Rance and Harrison Jolly take a break during the national tournament in Auckland last month. Photo: supplied
Tom Rance had a good idea about three years ago and he hopes to run with it all the way to the 2028 Olympics.

The former University A rugby outside back and friends Laurence Arundell and George Gray formed American Football Otago in 2022 with the goal of competing at the flag football national tournament that year.

They were advised to start a social media page by the national body, and about 30 people attended an early trial, which blew their minds.

Otago’s team went to the national tournament and finished 13th, and claimed the same spot again last year.

This year, they upgraded to a bronze medal, which Rance was thrilled about.

"We wanted to show we could compete at that level and we did that," he said.

That performance in Auckland last month was even more meritorious when you consider how quickly the sport is growing in New Zealand.

Flag football has been included in the Olympic programme for the Los Angeles Olympic Games in four years and that has been a boost for its profile, Rance said.

"It is growing pretty fast and getting a lot of interest. A lot of athletes are switching codes and are really paying attention to the sport now which is really exciting. You want to get the best athletes you can."

The 23-year-old developed a love for the sport while living in the United States when he was younger.

He met Arundell and Gray at secondary school in Christchurch and they would play the game during the lunch break.

When they all wound up in Dunedin for university, they decided to see if they could get the sport up and running in the city again.

Rance moved to Auckland for work recently, but he remains loyal to the club he help found despite no shortage of offers to switch allegiances.

He played for the New Zealand Mako at the Asia-Oceania championships in Malaysia last year.

They were beaten by Thailand in the final but their second placing earned them qualification for the world cup in Finland in August.

The Mako have a world ranking of 12th. Thailand are ranked No5 "so we are right up there in that top level", Rance said.

To qualify for the Olympics, the New Zealanders either need to finish in the top three at the next world cup in 2026 or in the top two in their division.

"Under that criteria, New Zealand would have qualified with our result at the Asia-Oceanias. But our focus is on the world cup and to cement ourselves as a team that can compete at the top level.

"It has always been our dream to get to the Olympics and to wear a black jersey. That is now more of a possibility. It is still a bit of a long shot but it is exciting to have that chance."