With its women's side narrowly failing to make it via the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series despite a fine fourth place last season (10 points behind qualifiers Canada), and its men finishing in sixth place just nine points behind third-placed Fiji, the French rugby sevens teams are yet to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The World Rugby Sevens Repechage tournament in Monaco will be the last chance to qualify for both sides.
France's women, who recently won an international warm-up tournament at St George's Park in England, head into the final qualifier in form.
“It’s always good to win and it’s good for everyone, especially when you’re up against really tough opposition like we had. We had incredibly good teams which presented us with enormous challenges and difficulties,” admits France 7 Women's coach David Courteix, reacting to his side's record of four wins in six games at St George's Park.
"But the content mattered more to us, by offering more people playing time, trying to build complicity between girls who had the least time playing together, of shaking up habits a little by challenging our female players in positions in which they played rarely. Still, that was the focus of the weekend.
“What interested me above all was the experience itself. We had loaded well in training, we were tired, and despite everything, the idea was to perform with that, to stay focused, masters of our nerves, to fully engage, to play with collective behaviour. We will have lots of lessons to learn from this weekend.
“You know, rugby is first and foremost an adaptation sport. Winning games is good, but the adaptation challenge is huge too. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we got shaken up. I find that being shaken is important because it is an opportunity to learn a lot of things, to progress and to be even more successful to adapt in the future.”
A strengthened status as favourites
The victory reinforces the favourites status placed on the side in Monaco, who will have two chances to qualify for the Olympic Games with two places still to be claimed for the women's Olympic tournament in Tokyo and Russia, others are eyeing it too.
However, as the old wolf of the sevens stage that he is, David Courteix knows only too well the cost of too much confidence. “We will go to Monaco to have a performance and this will allow us, I hope, to qualify for the Games. But everyone will want it too!” warns the coach. “Nobody thinks that it will be a secured qualification.”
The first difficulty for the France team will be the teams they play in their pool. Because, apart from Hong Kong, the French have never played Colombia or Madagascar. “Even if we don't have images on them, we know the basics: they will come very motivated with the desire to bring down the team that is seen as the seed and the favourite and it is normal,” he admits.
“Their desire to go to the Games will be the same as ours. Behind rugby, and the sevens in particular, there is an extraordinarily strong culture, and these teams are fully imbued with it. Here too, we will have to adapt.”
Keeping their competitive spirit
For the men too, the tournament is not going to be any easier, especially since there will be only one place to be won for the Tokyo Olympics. The repechage ranks include big contenders such as Ireland, Samoa, other World Series regulars, but also Uganda, Jamaica, and Tonga, among others.
Unfortunately for France, the great rise in power observed in recent years under the rule of Jérôme Daret has been stopped dead by the pandemic: their last real tournament dates to Vancouver on 7-8 March, 2020, where France finished 10th. “We had the green lights on the World Series; the France team is progressing,” assures Jérôme Daret.
During this pandemic, his project became part of that undertaken by the nation's 15s setup, where the staff of Fabien Galthié found with the sevens players quality sparring partners to train with. Not forgetting the three players from the sevens squad who found game time in the Top 14: Jean-Pascal Barraque and Tavite Vederamu for Clermont, and Pierre Mignot in Bordeaux, which allowed them to keep their competitive spirit intact.
“Nothing beats competition to enhance players; it was a breath of fresh air for these youngsters,” insists the coach. “We had the chance to work with the XV de France, which kept this competitive adrenaline. This has allowed most players to continue training with an extremely high level of demand.”
Strength in state of mind
This mentality will need to be on show when the squad returns to competition. After two good tournaments in Dubai at the beginning of April – they finished second in the first leg and third in the return – Les Bleus had to cancel their participation in the Madrid Sevens because of restrictions, but are preparing to play in Valladolid, Spain, from 26-28 May, before leaving for a training camp in Aix-en-Provence and then heading for Monaco.
Their repechage pool, which also contains Hong Kong, Chile, Uganda, and Jamaica, will be difficult to navigate. “The asset we have is that we know all these teams from having played them before; we know what to expect,” states Daret.
“We will have to be very vigilant, fully accurate on what we want to put in place and ensure that we gain momentum, but do not crash. That will mean being very opportunistic and overly optimistic, because if we win this tournament, we will have the green lights to challenge the teams at the Olympics and we will arrive in full confidence with a huge craving. It will be even more beneficial since we have played a very high-level competition a month before, we will have had the necessary preparation to be able to be ready in Tokyo.”
Suffice to say that Daret does not doubt the ability of his team to move mountains. The stakes are high, and the symbolism is beautiful. These Olympics will potentially be the last appearance of the serial sevens scorer for France, Terry Bouhraoua, and he intends to make it an additional source of motivation. Even if it will not be the only weapon of the French.
“The first is our ability to play as a team and the second is our game plan in which the players find themselves. But the most important strength the France team can have today is its state of mind,” says Daret.
As a good connoisseur of sevens and French gastronomy, he warns all the same: “We can put all the ingredients in there, but what is important is to make the recipe on the day.”