An hour or so after France’s exit from the Rugby World Cup, Antoine Dupont sat in the press conference room in the bowels of the Stade de France in a pose that bore a striking resemblance to French sculptor Rodin’s The Thinker. The pain of that one-point quarter-final defeat to South Africa was writ large on Dupont’s battle-scarred face, but as he looks ahead now, it is the same stadium – and perhaps the same opponent – that gives him the chance to purge the hurt that was so clear to see.
It has been confirmed that Dupont, widely considered the best player in the world, will be missing the Six Nations to be part of France’s sevens squad for next summer’s Paris Olympics. The 27-year-old had hoped it would be part of a “Golden Slam” alongside World Cup, Six Nations, Champions Cup and Top 14 honours, but instead it may serve to balm the wounds of the past month.
There are words of warning, however. Sevens and XV-a-side rugby serve as brothers, but they are very different and adapting will be complicated and nuanced.
“Dupont may be the best player in XVs but he won’t be in sevens,” laughs Jean-Pascal Barraque, who will be a team-mate of Dupont’s as France go for gold. “Our coach Jerome Daret describes sevens as ‘the Formula 1 of rugby’ and Antoine will have to adjust”. Can Dupont become a Ferrari? “We will need to prepare him to become one…” he says with a Gallic shrug.
Dupont’s selection is not a certainty. The French sevens system includes a mix of centrally contracted sevens specialists and others, such as Barraque, who are released by their Top 14 clubs. The Perpignan player explains: “I already know I can do the transition because I know all the tactics and the boys. I have no doubt he will be very good because of his passing, kicking, his vision but he will have to get used to the speed and how painful it is. We play games on Saturday and then wake up with so much pain in our bodies on Sunday and we have to play again.”
There is little doubt that Dupont’s addition to the side will create huge interest, with Telegraph Sport understanding that organisers are hopeful he will be a face of the Olympics alongside Kylian Mbappe, if the football superstar is cleared to take part.
Barraque welcomes the comparison, saying: “It is good because Dupont is the best player in world rugby and Mbappe is becoming the best player in football. It is different for Dupont because he hasn’t played sevens before but it is normal for them to want those famous guys. The comparison is good because football is so much more popular and that can only help the visibility of rugby. Dupont is so famous that maybe Mbappe knows him? That would be cool for us!
“[Dupont’s involvement] is a win for everyone because sevens needs this and so does France after not winning the World Cup. The whole country is disappointed, we can use that to bring the fans with us. It isn’t just that Antoine is such a great player but his profile is unbelievable – everybody in France knows him, even people who may not know rugby. They will watch just for him. It would be fantastic because so many more people would come to the Stade de France.”
Dupont is not the only France star targeted by the sevens set-up, and Telegraph Sport understands Arthur Vincent and Sekou Macalou have also been linked to switch – although wing Damian Penaud is thought not to be among that number due to concerns raised by his new club, Bordeaux.
The transition from XVs to sevens is not straightforward, however, and there are numerous examples of it not quite going to plan. Sonny Bill Williams was perhaps the best fit, but even now there is some regret at what he might have achieved given more time, considering that he was injured at the 2016 Rio Games.
“Sonny Bill wasn’t the best sevens player as he hadn’t much time, but he was a very good sevens player, that is what a world-class player brings,” adds Barraque, while former England and Great Britain stalwart Richard de Carpentier feels his addition could improve France even if Dupont himself is not at his best.
“Everyone was targeting Sonny Bill and I can imagine that happening to Dupont but that can be used as a positive to give other players space,” says de Carpentier.
If Dupont is going to get up to speed he will have to do so the hard way. Sevens is moving into a new era with the World Series rebranded as HSBC SVNS, with the European leg being held in Madrid so it is in the unlikely rugby surrounds of Los Angeles and Vancouver that he will have to learn the ropes.
If he does so then expect Dupont to be one of the headliners of next summer – potentially alongside Mbappe.