The France captain is aiming to win a gold medal at Paris 2024
The track record of 15s superstars trying their hands at sevens is mixed to say the least, but France captain Antoine Dupont has the skill-set to be the exception to the rule and thrill at the Olympics.
Dupont, World Rugby’s men’s 15s Player of the Year in 2021, led his country at the World Cup on home soil but agonisingly fell short of being the first Frenchman to lift the Webb Ellis Cup after a one-point quarter-final loss to eventual champions South Africa.
However, now the World Cup is over, Dupont has another objective clearly marked out – to play sevens at the Olympic Games in Paris.
From now until the end of July, that gives him eight or nine months to make the transition – with Toulouse coach Ugo Mola giving an indication of how seriously Dupont is taking the challenge. Mola explained that he expects to lose his captain for half, if not all of this season. It could just be posturing but it’s clear Dupont doesn’t expect to simply rock up and dominate in sevens as he has in 15s.
He’s not the first to attempt the switch. When sevens made its debut at the 2016 Olympics, Sonny Bill Williams, Bryan Habana and Quade Cooper topped the bill of 15s standouts who came across. Of the three, Williams was the only one to make it to Brazil, with injury ending his tournament in the first group game.
So what lessons can be learned from the relative failures of the Rio trio? And is there reason to believe Dupont can thrive where they did not?
Can Dupont succeed where other 15s stars have failed in sevens?
Tom Mitchell, who led Team GB to silver in 2016, believes he has a good chance. “It can be tough to make the switch to sevens depending on how limited your skill-set is,” he says.
“I don’t mean that to sound disparaging because anyone playing top-level rugby is good at rugby. But the diversity of skill-set required for sevens and for all those skills to be
at a high level excludes some people from making the switch.
“Going back to 2016, there were critics of the 15s players who came over. They probably didn’t deliver in the way people thought they would. You had some of the best guys ever to play 15s arguably. Sonny Bill was one of the best sportspeople we have seen, with his ability to cross over sports and do different codes of rugby. He was good but not the player we thought he might be.
“World Rugby keep showing the one offload he did where he drew in a couple of defenders and threw an offload, which was amazing, but there wasn’t loads of that.
“Bryan Habana was good but his pace was not really a point of difference on the sevens pitch because there are other really quick guys out there as well.
“Maybe it’s harder in sevens to find the point of difference. There are fewer mismatches. I don’t have the answer though, I’m reaching for something. It’s more likely they didn’t have the time in the sport to learn how to apply their strengths in a way that was going to set the world alight.
“Talking about Dupont specifically, the thing with him is he has such a rounded game. He’s not a nine who shies away from the physicality, he’s an incredibly strong, powerful guy. So in the contact area, which is an important part of sevens, he’ll have no problem.
“The classic difficulty that players going from 15s tend to have is the running loads. I’ve not followed his stats in terms of metres covered but I imagine they are through the roof. So his baseline fitness will be unbelievable. That will carry him pretty well.
“I’m a bit biased to be honest, because he’s one of the players I love watching, so maybe I’m not that objective. Or maybe he’s that good that everyone thinks the sun shines out of his derrière.”
How tough will the physical transition to sevens be?
Good or not, the issue for Dupont will be that he has no prior sevens experience at the highest level. Purely from a physical standpoint, that will put him under pressure to match the explosive fitness demands of rugby’s shorter format.
Marcus Watson, a team-mate of Mitchell in 2016, found out just how tough switching back to sevens can be – and he’d only gone across to 15s for a season.
“I’d never say I was close to the top in the fitness tests, I was probably pretty close to the middle,” he says. “But when I came back, I was firmly in the bottom four or five which was an eye-opener.
“One advantage I had over some of the other boys who hadn’t played sevens as regularly who were coming in from a 15s background was that I had the past experience and maybe
a capacity that I could fall back on.
“That is what I thought before I started, I thought I’d be a bit behind in some of the fitness tests early doors. What I wasn’t expecting was it to take as long as it did to get to a position of fitness that I was in previously.
“It pretty much took all the way up to the 12 weeks’ training to get to a position where I was as fit as I was before playing sevens.”
South Africa’s Ryan Kankowski had a similar experience ahead of 2016. Having broken through on the sevens circuit in 2006, he had then focused on 15s for a decade before coming back for Rio.
That sevens background ensured he got much closer than most to making it to the Olympics – as it turned out, a knee injury in the final stages of the prep dashed his hopes. But when it comes to the demands of sevens, Kankowski warns that Dupont could be in for a shock.
He says: “The coaches know what they are doing, so they will invite him into the squad, but he’ll have to earn his place. There were a lot of guys who came straight from the South African World Cup team who came to join us and they didn’t make it past the first day of fitness and they were sent home.
“He’s a nine so he will have the engine to go. But I think he’ll be surprised how fit he needs to be. Everyone thinks it’s a step down from 15s but it’s not, it’s the toughest rugby I’ve ever done. I lost eight or nine kilograms in six weeks when I went from 15s to sevens again before those Olympics.
“He’ll find it interesting, the fitness, it’s very tricky. Your body just goes into panic mode. It sounds like a joke but my body goes into sweats just thinking about it. It was really tough because you’re doing all these fitness drills because now you are covering ten metres of space each side of you instead of two or one.”
The repeated sprints required in sevens, as well as the ability to back up multiple matches in a day, will be new for Dupont. But in some ways, his game is as suited as you can find to the former demand. There is no player in the game who appears more often on the shoulder after a break – those lung-bursting support lines would seem to be the perfect practice.
Dupont Olympics journey: These attributes are key
A scrum-half in sevens will also often find himself playing one in from the touchline receiving the ball in acres of space – the sort of scenario where Dupont’s relatively extensive experience playing at fly-half may serve him.
And as Mitchell explains, an overlooked aspect of sevens is the need to pass long distances due to that extra space.
“Having a good pass on him will serve him well, to state the obvious,” Mitchell says. “It’s one not to take for granted. A lot of 15s players will only ever in training and games have to pass maybe seven metres because the next player is never that far away, unless you are throwing big ‘miss’ balls, but not many players are called upon to do that.
“In sevens you frequently have to throw longer passes and need to be incredibly accurate if you are going to keep your attack going. That is something he won’t have to worry about.”
France coach Jérôme Daret also faces a dilemma in how to integrate Dupont into a side that finished fourth in the most recent HSBC World Sevens Series, reaching the semi-finals in six of the 11 tournaments.
There is the obvious concern over whether those currently in the set-up will be happy to see Dupont waltz in less than a year out from the Games, but for Watson that shouldn’t be a big issue.
“I don’t think you can really be upset with somebody if they have played some of the tournaments before. It would be a hard one to take if someone comes in having not played any sevens at all and goes straight into an Olympic side. But if they have played some tournaments and played pretty well, then it’s pretty hard to argue.”
So can he succeed? The answer is unanimous. For Watson: “If there is anyone that could do the transition pretty comfortably, it’s ridiculous to say because he’s probably the best player in the world, but it would probably be him.”
Kankowski adds: “He’ll have to earn his way in that team, as brilliant as he is. I’m sure he’ll do that.”
And the final word goes to Mitchell: “In the world of 15s players, he would be up there in terms of someone you would hand-pick to transfer.”