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France issue Olympics warning after Dupont-less show in Hong Kong

By Liam Heagney
France huddle at the Hong Kong 7s (Photo by Mike Lee/World Rugby)

The Hong Kong final didn’t go as wanted for France, but the experience of losing 7-12 to New Zealand amid a raucous atmosphere should serve them well when it comes to managing the likely similarly intoxicating din of their home Olympics tournament at the end of July.

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Support for the French was abundant in the Far East decider but there was a franticness to their play in this sold-out decider compared to the precision that transpired last month when they won a first title in 19 years in front of a limited Los Angeles audience where the atmosphere was far less intense.

The LA champions battled their way to 0-0 at the break on Sunday night, but they then came unstuck. It wasn’t the opening try off a quickly tapped penalty that was finished four passes later in the corner by Scott Curry that did for them – there was always a chance of coming back from 0-7 down in the blink of an eye.

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Jannes Kirsten on his injury since arriving back in South Africa

Jannes Kirsten on his injury speak to Liam Heagney about the injury that’s kept him out of action since arriving at the Bulls.

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Jannes Kirsten on his injury since arriving back in South Africa

Jannes Kirsten on his injury speak to Liam Heagney about the injury that’s kept him out of action since arriving at the Bulls.

However, they curiously lost their composure after gathering the restart kick, a facet of the game they had managed brilliantly against Ireland in the semi-finals.

There was a debate over whether Joachim Troubabal got his knee to the ground five metres in from touch near the 10-metre line. If so, the referee should have called a ruck, forcing the three New Zealanders who had snagged him to release, allow him to go to the ground and set up the ball for recycling.

Play on was the decision, though, and the ball squirting loose backwards towards the 22 was followed by the panicked Stephen Parez, the scorer of the key try against the Irish when the yellow-carded French were down to six players before half-time, who blindly threw a reverse pass, inviting Brady Rush to intercept and Cody Vai to score.

France did eventually break their duck at the death with about two seconds remaining through Varian Pasquet.

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There was another debate that Pasquet should have immediately shouted ‘no kick’ to the referee to decline the conversion, which could have left time for a restart with the score at 5-12 – but it was too late as they were all out of time out with the final whistle sounding as soon as the extras were added by Rayan Rebbadj.

Beaten but very much not bowed, though. There is a very encouraging, focused sense of unity about this French outfit.

For instance, Antoine Zeghdar, who hobbled off with a left leg injury in the first of the final, was assisted up the steps of the Hong Kong Stadium stand by Pasquet and Rebbadj to make sure he was part of the post-match presentation. That was a very nice touch.

The French are definitely on the rise and very much in with a gold medal shout in 15 weeks at the Stade de France. “We have the potential to achieve incredible things,” insisted Aaron Grandidier, the late-blooming, London-born speedster who only played his first rugby match of any kind at the age of 17.

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Soon-to-be 24, he has rapidly zipped through the gears, bagging a move to Brive and then selection in the French sevens team where he wears the No9 shirt.

Now he is just months away from challenging at the Olympics. “It’s a shame we weren’t able to put it together in the final. We learned a lot and will come back stronger.”

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Grandidier is no sevens slouch. When speaking with RugbyPass the previous night after his slick South Stand try helped France edge Spain in the quarter-finals, his enthusiasm was infectious.

“I found myself in the middle of the pitch and tried to take it outside, but I saw that they were over-chasing so a big right foot stepped opened it up to the try line.

“Oh my God, that’s the stuff of dreams; the stuff of dreams! I’d to pull out a little Jude Bellingham celebration but amazing, Amazing! What an atmosphere in this stadium!!”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for the French from Hong Kong was that they sure aren’t a team dependent on the fantastic Antoine Dupont. The Test XV scrum-half gave the Guinness Six Nations a miss so that he could try out sevens with the hope of his country succeeding at Paris 2024.

France ended their near two-decade sevens title famine with Dupont on-song on LA, but he didn’t travel to the Far East as his weekend’s priority was steering Toulouse beyond Racing and into the Investec Champions Cup quarter-finals, which he did.

In Dupont’s absence, though, the French kept their American vibe going nicely, making the final and enjoying tasty wins over Australia and Ireland along the way. “We did well in LA last month and it’s not something random,” vouched Jonathan Laugel to RugbyPass in the Hong Kong Stadium tunnel.

“It’s happening because it is paying off and we need to keep that consistency going again and again. I’m sure Antoine Dupont is still with us, but we are a big group with more than 25 guys who are training.

“Some are having some rest because of injury, some were there at our skills camp so it is a big group and Antoine Dupont is part of that group now as well and I’m sure he is proud of us. To continue that performance (from LA) shows it’s not something random.

“It’s awesome to see all the audience, all the public who is with us, and I’m sure Antoine brought something to this. He brought the light on our team.

“It is even more impactful when you have the likes of Antoine, but it remains really impactful even when he is not there so it is just a big group moving together for the victory towards Paris 2024.”

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Jon 23 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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