Belgium women’s sevens player Shari Claes was working her day job as a physiotherapist when she received an unexpected message from coach Romain Huet.
Following New Zealand’s withdrawal from the upcoming HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournaments in Malaga and Seville due to COVID travel restrictions, Belgium were invited to take the Black Ferns Sevens’ place.
Huet had got in touch with Claes to let her know she had been selected as part of the first Belgian women’s squad to compete on the Series.
It is an opportunity Huet and his players intend to take with both hands, but one that left Claes looking a little pale as she stared at her phone.
“I saw the message from the coach, and at that moment my colleague walked past,” she told World Rugby.
Welcome, @DRVRugby and @BelgianRugby! 👋— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) January 13, 2022
Both sides are heading to HSBC Spain Sevens to replace the All Blacks Sevens and Black Ferns Sevens due to COVID-19 travel restrictions#HSBC7s | #Spain7s | @Spain7sSeries
“He walked by me and he asked me if I'd seen a ghost because I looked kind of shocked! So, he said, ‘Oh my God, did you get bad news?’
“I was like, really the opposite – I got really good news! Yeah, I was shocked, and I couldn't believe that we were selected, so it felt unreal.”
“I’m ready to give my all”
Things will definitely feel a lot more real for Claes and her team-mates on Friday when they run out for their Series debut against the winners of the opening two tournaments, Australia.
Belgium, who have been drawn in Pool A alongside the Rio 2016 Olympic champions, hosts Spain and Ireland, could not have asked for a more difficult first match in Malaga.
However, Claes sees the encounter as an opportunity for the squad to test themselves against the best in the world as they begin a journey they hope can take them to Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022, Series and Olympic qualification.
“I'm really excited, I'm just hoping to keep that level of excitement and to not be too overwhelmed running out in a big stadium,” she said.
“I'm ready to give my all and to enjoy and to take this experience, to get us and the team to a better level.
“It’s a great opportunity for us all. Personally, I love seeing Australia play, so I'm just going to try to not think about the fact it's Australia [and] to see them as rugby girls and our opposition players.
“Just try not to think about it, that they're Olympic gold medallists and just see them as my target to tackle or as a girl that I need to get past when I have the ball.”
Although they have never played on the Series, Belgium have faced both Spain and Ireland previously, and beat the hosts as recently as last June during the Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Championship 2021 tournament in Moscow.
Coach Huet believes that playing in Malaga and Seville will be a good opportunity for his young squad to find out how they compare against the best teams in the world.
But he says that it is performances and not results that are the most important thing over the next two weekends in southern Spain.
“To play Australia, which is at the moment the best team in the world, that will be definitely a huge step [up],” Huet said.
“But we're feeling really grateful to play against them and this is the best way to know where we are.
“So, definitely to be able to be exposed to that high level is a real opportunity for us and this is the best way for me to enhance our performance for the future.”
He added: “Results are one thing, but performance is more important.
“I don't know what to expect, but [what] we expect mainly from the girls is our mindset, our DNA, our intensity… just to be authentic. We will perform if we are us.”