Belgium women’s head coach Emiel Vermote is relishing the prospect of leading his team into the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024.
The top four teams at the end of the three-tournament series will get an opportunity to battle for promotion to HSBC SVNS 2025 – along with this year’s bottom four SVNS teams – at a standalone tournament in Madrid in May.
And after two near-misses on back-to-back weekends in April last year, when they finished runners-up to hosts South Africa in both Stellenbosch-based finals, Belgium will go to Dubai this weekend, Montevideo in March and Krakow in May as one of the teams to watch.
Captained by Cécile Blondiau, last year’s top try-scorer on the women’s Challenger Series, Belgium used a week-long training camp in Liege to fine tune their preparations having undertaken a similar exercise in Faro, Portugal just before the festive break.
“The consistency that we want to bring is to have a top four mentality. It is about switching the mindset a little bit on the underdog position that Belgians love being in and being really ambitious going into a tournament,” said Vermote, who has been coaching the team for the last five years.
“This team they have never won a tournament, not one that I have experienced. We have played a lot of finals. So for me it would be a really cool accolade in our evolution and the way that we work [to win one] because we know we are capable of it and what steps we need to take. I am a very positive guy and I only see a lot of opportunity.
“We are ready, we have prepared well, and there is a sense of control combined with humbleness, that I am really confident in us being in a top four position at the end of the competition.
“And then you come into a new dynamic, it’s the first time the world series teams have to defend everything they represent, and we are the ones that only have everything to win. If we lose, we just stay in the same composition,” he continued.
“I think that is going to be a really interesting competition as well. It is a cool format and it is 100 per cent something that we are aiming to go for, to get to Madrid.
“If we are realistic, we need to grow as a group and as a project and be ready to go to the next level, that’s why the training camp in Portugal was the biggest win for me. I just know everything is going to be okay because we spent five days out there and did three days in a row of just playing games, and the quality was really good.”
While this year’s squad is very similar to last year’s, with just three changes, including the addition of international sevens rookies, Ambre Collet and Femke Soens, Vermote points out that this year’s competition won’t necessarily reflect what happened in 2023.
“For me, it is really like going into a new competition,” said the 33-year-old from Ghent.
“It excites me, it is a beautiful evolution, that was absolutely needed. It excites me to see the level raised, the teams change, and investment made from different federations. The Ugandan players, for example, are all contracted, all professionals.
“So it would be a big mistake from my side to think, okay last year we were second so this year we need to be first. It would be logical consequence but rugby sevens never works like that.
“It was a real morale boost, though, that we know we can do it, that we can beat teams that are structured really well. There is a certain type of conscious hierarchy created in these sevens competitions and breaking those perceptions, that’s the hardest part.”
Another challenge highlighted by the former Belgium men’s sevens captain is the timing of the first tournament.
“This is the first season that we have had to prepare for a rugby tournament in January. It’s all new. So it will be a little different for the team to be switched on mentally at this time of year,” said Vermote, who was capped twice by Belgium in 15s at the end of his playing career in 2019.
“It is a sub-conscious reaction of Belgians to sleep through winter and wake up and be ready when the winter is over and the summer is coming!
“We’ve had a really good training block and ticked all the boxes that we needed to so when we arrive in Dubai, it is just about focusing on re-setting the machine a little bit.”
In Dubai, Belgium are in Pool A with Papua New Guinea, Thailand and new opponents in Uganda, with each match presenting its own challenge.
“The nuances that you get between these teams, that’s what I love about the Challenger series,” said Vermote, the type of positive thinker who can make his players believe anything is possible.
“I think it is pretty exciting that we have three different playing styles and it’s up to us to adapt our game but not too much so we don’t lose our own playing style.
“Having our team getting challenged and seeing how they react and how they respond, that is something that I really look forward to. Whatever happens, it will make our team stronger.”