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FEATURE Antoine Dupont's Olympics dream divides France

Antoine Dupont's Olympics dream divides France
6 months ago

Antoine Dupont was crowned the Top 14 Player of the Year at a glittering awards ceremony in Paris on Monday. It was the second time in three seasons that the Toulouse scrum-half has been awarded the honour, but there were a few in France a little surprised that Gregory Alldritt, the La Rochelle N0 8, didn’t pick up the gong given his outstanding performances last season.

But Dupont is the face of French rugby, and no longer just of the 15-a-side game. After winning his Top 14 accolade, the France captain confirmed to the media that he will be forsaking the 2024 Six Nations in favour of playing Sevens, a move that he hopes will culminate in his bagging a medal in next summer’s Paris Olympics.

“For all sports fans, the Olympic Games are legendary,” he said. “To be able to host this event in France is going to be an incredible celebration.” He added that he was honoured to be given the chance “to be part of it and, above all, to be in with a chance of winning an Olympic medal.”
Not everyone shares that sentiment. According to French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique, France’s head coach, Fabien Galthie, tried to convince Dupont to stay with the game he knows best.
Antoine Dupont
Antoine Dupont is keen to bring his skills to bear in Sevens, but his decision has not pleased everyone (Photo Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

One wonders what the squad feels about their captain jetting off to Vancouver and Los Angeles in February and March to play Sevens. There may also be mutterings within the Sevens squad with the regulars wondering who will be sacrificed for Dupont. Someone is set for crushing disappointment.

Toulouse won’t miss out that much as Dupont will be away for only February and March, as he would have been had he played in the Six Nations. There is a difference, however, in his absence, one that might have ramifications for Toulouse in the business end of the season.

Instead of playing in the Six Nations, Dupont will be playing Sevens, learning new skills and adapting his fitness to a game that makes different physical demands to 15s. Surely even a talent like Dupont won’t be able to slot straight back into the Top 14 after two months of Sevens?
I think he’ll put an end to the debate in his first few tournaments. He’s the best player in the world and he’ll earn his place
Paul Bonnefond has played over 100 times for France 7s while also appearing for Lyon and Castres in the Top 14. He has his doubts that Dupont can make the transition in such a short time. “He has above-average rugby and physical qualities, but in my opinion six months will be the minimum adaptation period needed.”

Dupont is giving himself two months, then returning to the Top 14, before rejoining the France 7s squad in June for the Olympic Games the following month in Paris.

Nonetheless, Bonnefond understands the reasoning behind Dupont’s move, which has the support of the French Rugby Federation (FFR). “If [France] had won tournaments, we might have asked ourselves why bring in new players,” explained Bonnefond. “That’s where Antoine Dupont can add a lot of value. There are not 50 Antoine Duponts in the world, and I think he’ll put an end to the debate in his first few tournaments. He’s the best player in the world and he’ll earn his place.”

Antoine Dupont meets French president Emmanuel Macron
Dupont has publicly supported French president Emmanuel Macron, who is keen for France to host a successful Olympics (Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s not hard to picture the impact Dupont could have in the Sevens, bringing to bear his vision, precision, inventiveness and blistering acceleration. Few in France think he’ll flop in the shorter format, but it’s the principle that has upset some within the sport.

“I understand what the Olympics can do for rugby but not playing in the Six Nations, that’s tough,” said the former France hooker Vincent Moscato on his weekly radio rugby show. “The Six Nations is sacred. Rugby was invented for this competition.”

Another former French international, Denis Charvet, also described the Six Nations as “sacred” and focused his ire on the FFR for agreeing to Dupont’s switch. “The Olympic Games are magnificent…but rugby at the Olympics is not the 100m. It doesn’t resonate in the same way. He’s taking a huge risk.”

In Charvet’s view, the French squad has little chance of winning an Olympic medal, certainly not gold, and so what’s the point when he could be inspiring France to a Six Nations Grand Slam. “We need Antoine Dupont, it’s not the same French team without him.”

It’s a sound argument. France’s quarter-final defeat by South Africa in last month’s World Cup left the squad shattered; morale is low and now they will go into the Six Nations without their leader and inspiration.
When Britain hosted the 2012 Olympics they won a record 65 medals, including 29 golds, and France fear that in contrast they could be humiliated next summer.
But the truth is that the French Olympic Team also need Dupont. In the 2020 Tokyo Games (held in 2021) they won 33 medals, their poorest tally this century, and of their 10 golds, half were won in judo and handball, not the most glamorous events.
In the recent World Athletics Championships, the French team collected a solitary silver medal, finishing 27th in the medal table behind Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic. Team GB finished seventh with 10 medals.
When Britain hosted the 2012 Olympics they won a record 65 medals, including 29 golds, and France fear that in contrast they could be humiliated next summer. There are few household names in the French Olympic squad, other than Teddy Riner, a triple gold medallist in judo. They desperately lack a Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy or Mo Farah, a winner and a personality. Hence the call to Dupont.
Antoine Dupont holds his hands on his head
Dupont, the face of the World Cup, was distraught after France’s quarter-final exit (Photo Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

President Emmanuel Macron is pals with Dupont – the latter publicly supported him in last year’s election – and one may wonder if the president has had a word behind the scenes to encourage the scrum-half to make the switch.

Dupont will certainly put bums on seats next summer, and not just Gallic derrieres. He’s box-office, a once-in-a-generation talent who rugby fans want to see in the flesh. It’s rumoured in the French media that other Les Bleus stars may follow, notably Arthur Vincent, Sekou Macalou and Damian Penaud. Would that be wise? One defection is tolerable; four would anger Galthie and the Sevens squad, who have dreamed of playing in front of their home crowd for years.

It would be churlish to begrudge Dupont his decision. He has never given anything less than 100 per cent for his club and country in recent seasons, and if he can pull off a minor miracle and get France onto the podium next summer, who in France will care if he missed one Six Nations campaign?

A break from the club and country treadmill might do Dupont some good and allow him to return next season fitter, healthier and stronger, to paraphrase the Olympic motto.

It may also do him some good. Dupont seems to have taken France’s World Cup heartbreak harder than most. That’s not surprising. He was the captain, the figurehead, the man whom the country had been led to believe by a partisan press would lift the Webb Ellis Cup on 28 October.

Dupont may have bought into the hype and the deflation he feels has been evident in his recent performances for Toulouse. The spark isn’t there. He looks flat, even a little disillusioned.

A break from the club and country treadmill might do him some good and allow him to return next season fitter, healthier and stronger, to paraphrase the Olympic motto.

Comments

4 Comments
K
KELLY 208 days ago

The French Olympics;
 
If the French rugby federation pulled their finger out their arse and get WR Sevens to change some of seven rugbies rules so any nation could win. That would let 3 or 4 of their 15s rugby star players give sevens rugby a go to help France medal in sevens. By simply allowing 14 manned squads would allow for a 7 manned bench on its own. Or is common-sense in rugby dead?
 
By Adopting these five 7s rugby ELVS would mean all the squads at the Olympics 7s rugby could win a medal. And would stop the predictable boring outcomes?
 
Who wants to watch a one-sided comp where many squads can’t win it because of its rules? What are ELVs for. These rules would speed the game up and improve its spectacle dramatically. In the order they’re in?
 
Sevens squads need to have 14 men in their squads to have a seven manned bench for extra combos and to help rehydrate the team for these five 7s EVLs to work well?
 
1/ Seven points awarded for a try under the posts, would save a lot of time, to get more tries.
 
2/ Use the drop goal-line drop-out. Which should already be a law as it’s very hard in sevens rugby to hold a player up over the goal-line, and that type of defence deserves a break. To get to kick the ball away from their goal-line!
 
3/ All conversions to be taken by the person who scored the try, even if it’s a forward because a scrubbed conversion by a forward would create plenty of time for an extra try or six. Making it far easier to get six quick unconverted tries to win, than to get 4 converted tries to ‘WIN’ a game.
 
4/ Having one-minute yellow cards for all deliberate knocks-ons and for some cynical game momentum changing fouls, that stops a try from being scored. Would suit any team as having two-minute ‘yellow cards’ is far too long and destroys the games spectacle.
 
5/ Having two-minute replacement red cards” for dangerous play, and put that player on TMO ‘RE view for a game or for a few game suspensions.
 
 

S
Stuart 208 days ago

Top 3 player in the world wants to play 7s. What a blessing for the 7s game and what a great option for fans in a year with neither a World Cup nor a Lions tour. Yes, missing the 6 Nations is a sacrifice. This lad has not made that choice lightly.
I look at it this way: he is deeply disappointed after the World Cup. The schedule being the schedule, he doesn’t have a break to rest and heal - mentally being more important than physically (just look at O’Mahony giving up the Munster captaincy for a sign of mental fatigue). He’s well keen to play 7s and try to boost the squad to a podium. No matter what happens, what plays out - he’s got the chance to be energised again. That can only benefit France.

And my heavens, what a player. I say pull out the stops and bring back Kwagga Smith to the SA 7s - and let them have at it in a drama-filled final or semi-final revenge match.

N
Niel 208 days ago

The best rugby player of his generation playing sevens and devaluing the top level of our sport is farcical.

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