Germany men’s sevens head coach António Aguilar believes his team has what it takes to overcome past disappointments and remain in contention for a place on the new-look HSBC World Rugby Seven Series 2024.

In just under a fortnight’s time, the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series begins in South Africa with Germany joined by 11 other men’s teams drawn from six regions.

The Challenger Series takes place on back-to-back weekends, on 22-24 April and 28-30 April, at Markotter Stadium in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unlike previously, the winner will not automatically earn promotion to the World Series, but instead face the sides ranked 12th to 14th in this season’s competition in a round-robin play-off in London, on 20-21 May.

Confirmation of the teams taking part in that play-off will be known post-Toulouse, the next round of the Series on 12-14 May, where Germany will play as an invitational team, adding to the Series experience they picked up in 2021 and 2022. 

As things currently stand, the Challenger Series winner will be up against Canada, Kenya and Spain for the big prize, although the last place promises to be hotly contested with one point separating Los Leones Sevens from Uruguay, the team just above the play-off zone.

So near, so far

What is certain is that any place on the streamlined HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series will be extremely hard won, and Germany are up for the challenge particularly after a string of near-misses over the last few years.

Germany heartbreakingly lost to Spain and Japan in the final of what was then the World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier in Hong Kong in 2017 and 2018 and have reached at least the semi-final stage in all six of the deciding tournaments, including the two Challenger Series that have been played to date, in 2020 and 2022.

But in head coach Aguilar – the former Portugal winger who played at Rugby World Cup 2007 – they have a fresh pair of eyes and a person with vast playing and coaching experience on the Series to navigate them through the arduous process.

Aguilar, who has previously coached Portugal’s men’s sevens team, came on board with Germany back in October once Philip Snyman brought his brief tenure to an end by returning to South Africa.

While he has yet to take charge of the team in a competitive tournament, Aguilar has seen enough in training and preparation tournaments to encourage him that a new chapter can be written in German sevens.

“In the past, Germany has been very close to qualifying for the Series and this year is a bit more difficult but I think we are on the right path,” he said.

“It is not easy because the past near-misses take a toll mentally but I think we have turned it around and transformed that frustration into motivation, and I feel the boys are very motivated to at least win the Challenger Series and then, on the big stage, hopefully, win the big ticket to the Series.

“We have been beaten by everybody, I think, in the semi-final and the final for the last six events and twice in overtime, I think it was. So it takes a toll on confidence.

“When I got here, there was still a bit of a mental block but from what I have seen now, the environment is very competitive but relaxed at the same time.

“I think that is one of the reasons they wanted me as well, because I am a guy who creates competitive but relaxed environments with a positive vibe and I think we have done that.”

Gold standards

Germany haven’t played in a top-level, global sevens tournament since losing the Bowl final at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 in Cape Town in September.

But the excellent contact time that Aguilar has with the players, at the Olympic training centre in Heidelberg, gives Germany a head start on many of their rivals.

“Germany have got something good going on, they really take care of the players and if you take out the big guns in sevens who now have full-time programmes, I don’t think anyone else has as full-time a programme as we have,” he said.

“We have the players every day and we have a lot of time to work with them, which is one of the advantages we have. Obviously they have their clubs and we want them to be involved with the clubs as well but we can have a big say in where they go as well. It is good to have some control, not every coach has that.

“Another (advantage) is we are based in Heidelberg, at the Olympic Centre, so we have access to every asset and everything that is available for all Olympic sports in Germany.”

Germany have put those advantages into practice in the last few months and under co-captains Carlos Sotera Merz and Niklas Koch, they should be one of the frontrunners for the Challenger Series title.

“We went to Zimbabwe in November, for a local tournament, it was the first tournament I went to as head coach before Dubai, and we won it, we beat Zimbabwe in the final so it was a good start,” explained Aguilar.

“In Dubai we did pretty well in the International Invitational tournament. We lost in the semis, to a very strong development French team, and we beat Ireland and a couple of good teams on the way there.

“We also went to South Africa, to Stellenbosch, and we had good support from the South Africa [Rugby] Union and we trained with the SA Academy and the Blitzboks. It helped that Philip Snyman is the former Germany coach so we have a good relationship with him.

“Last month, we went to Malaga to train and play with the Spanish boys, so we have tried to get as much serious competition as we can get with no tournaments.

“And we have been training very hard in Heidelberg as well. We have around 30 players available every day at the moment so competition is very high.”

Different agendas

Aguilar, who recently completed an MBA in Sports Management, is relishing being back on the international sevens circuit after nearly three years away. “I’ve missed it and I’m very excited,” he said.

Germany are in Pool A at the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series 2023 along with Tonga, Zimbabwe and Belgium.

While results are the be-all and end-all for Germany over the coming weeks, and hopefully months, his time in charge of Portugal’s men’s sevens team was more of a developmental role.

“If you look at the squad who made it to the World Cup, a lot of the guys went through the sevens programme and went to the World Series when they were 18/19 – players like the captain Tomás Appleton, Raffaele Storti and Nuno Sousa Guedes. Jeronimo (Portela) was only 17 when he started,” Aguilar said.

2023 could be a big year for Aguilar, not only in seeing the players he helped to transform into world-class talents perform on the biggest stage like he did back in 2007 but also as head coach of the first Germany team to win core team status on the World Series.

While the first of those ambitions is on the horizon, there is plenty to do before the second becomes a reality, as Aguilar is all too aware.

“We have to win basically every game to make it to London, that’s the main goal.”

Photo credit: Jan Perlich/Rugbylicious Photography