All eyes will be on Kazan and Colomiers this weekend as the best sevens teams in Europe converge on the Russian and French cities to battle it out for in the men's and women's regional qualifiers for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
The women's competition in particular is a mouth-watering prospect, featuring as it does five core teams on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series in France, England, Russia, Ireland and Spain.
This quintet finished from fifth to ninth in the 2019 world series but the Olympic dream will end for two of them on Sunday with the winner qualifying directly for Tokyo 2020 and the runners-up and bronze medallists booking their tickets to the global repechage next year from which two teams will qualify for the Games.
France are top seeds after winning the first round of the Rugby Europe Women's Sevens Grand Prix series on home soil in Marcoussis last month, and will be favourites to win the qualifier and book their ticket to the Olympic Games, just as they did four years ago when they beat Spain 20-0 in the final in the race to Rio 2016. Spain would later join them as winners of the global repechage in Dublin.
Coach David Courteix, though, knows that nothing can be taken for granted in sevens.
Every match counts
“Spain, Russia, England, Ireland ... we are one of the five favourites to qualify for Tokyo 2020. But what's exciting is that we must play with our head on, every game, it's a bit like walking on a wire,” said Courteix.
“It's pretty exciting at this level to tell yourself that in every match you play for your future. But what is also challenging is that come Sunday night there will be two European teams that will definitely be eliminated from the Tokyo Games, two teams of high quality.
“We are super motivated, fully striving towards the goal and we will give everything to get there. To qualify for the Olympics in sevens today is a real performance … qualifying would give a particular flavour to three years of intense work.”
Courteix has named a strong squad for Kazan, picking many of his sevens stalwarts in captain Fanny Horta, HSBC Dream Team member Anne-Cécile Ciofani, Chloé Pelle, Camille Grassineau (pictured) and Shannon Izar for a tournament that sees them, as top seeds, drawn in the easiest pool on paper with Poland, Italy and Moldova.
Pool B features Russia, the runners-up in Marcoussis, along with England, Germany and Sweden, while Spain and Ireland are joined by Romania and Czechia in Pool C with the top two in each pool and the two best third-placed teams to progress to the quarter-finals on Sunday.
Spain will go into the qualifier in high spirits after beating Olympic champions Australia en route to fourth place in the series finale in Biarritz last month and coach Pedro de Matias has been able to name arguably his strongest side, packed with experience and exciting new talent including six veterans of Rio 2016 and World Rugby Women's Sevens Series Rookie of the Year Lide Erbina.
Ireland and Las Leonas are no strangers to each other, having shared the spoils in Marcoussis with the Irish winning their pool encounter and Spain avenging that loss to win the third place play-off. Ireland welcome back their captain Lucy Mulhall, who missed the final two rounds of the world series with a leg injury, and will be looking to Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, the top try-scorer on the series with 35, to run in the tries in Russia.
Six women's teams have already confirmed their place at Tokyo 2020 in hosts Japan, South American champions Brazil and the four teams who qualified courtesy of a top-four finish in the series in New Zealand, USA, Canada and Australia.
First step on the ladder
The French men will also be hoping to repeat their victory in the European qualifier for Rio 2016, but will face stiff competition at the Michel Bendichou Stadium from England – the team nominated to qualify Great Britain for the Olympics Games, new series core team Ireland and Spain in particular.
France were also winners of the opening round of the men's Grand Prix Series in Moscow to be top seeds for this qualifier and will face Portugal, Italy and Hungary in Pool A with world series regulars Stephen Parez, Pierre-Gilles Lakafia and captain Jean-Pascal Barraque leading the charge.
Pool B features Moscow runners-up Ireland, Spain, Russia and Ukraine, while England, Germany, Georgia and Lithuania make up Pool C.
England have also named a settled team with captain Tom Mitchell, series all-time leading try-scorer Dan Norton and Phil Burgess among those back in the side after missing the series finale in Paris last month, while Ireland welcome back Hugo Keenan and Foster Horan from injury to join experienced squad members such as captain Billy Dardis, Mark Roche and speedster Jordan Conroy.
“Our aim is to secure Olympic qualification by winning the tournament and we are both excited and confident about the opportunity this weekend and looking forward to taking our first steps on the ladder on Saturday,” said England Head of Sevens Simon Amor.
The winner in Colomiers will become the eighth team to confirm their place in the men's event in Tokyo after hosts Japan, regional qualifiers Argentina (South America) and Canada (North America) and the four sides who qualified through the 2019 series in Fiji, USA, New Zealand and South Africa. The runner-up and bronze medallist will keep their Olympic dream alive with places in the repechage.
The two tournaments will be streamed live on Rugby Europe TV.
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