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France rugby sevens raises expectations for home Olympics after its first world series win

MADRID (AP) — High expectations on the France rugby sevens side for its Paris home Olympics will intensify after it won its first world series title in Madrid on Sunday.

The men outmuscled Argentina in the final 19-5 after the women were runner-up to Australia 26-7 at Metropolitano Stadium.

Since the world series began in 1999, France had never finished in the top four until last year. This season, it won the Los Angeles leg in March for its first tournament victory in 19 years.

France came to the series finale in Madrid ranked fifth but edged Fiji in the semifinals and avenged a pool loss to Argentina.

“The next tournament in Paris will be another story so we'll take the pleasure now,” France coach Jerome Daret said. “When you're on top of the wave, you have to be hard on your mindset. I'm very proud of the team, they never gave up, big heart. But it's not finished. We have a big target in a few weeks and maybe win the Olympics.”

The Argentines led for almost the entire series and knocked out defending series champion New Zealand to reach the Madrid final unbeaten and have a shot at their first world series title, too.

They started the final better. Rodrigo Isgro made a try-saving tackle on Jean Pascal Barraque, then Luciano Gonzalez, playing with a heavily taped right ankle, fended off two defenders to score the opening try in the left corner.

But seconds before halftime, France attacked from behind its own tryline and Varian Pasquet and Barraque worked to set Stephan Parez-Edo Martin free from the halfway line. France led 7-5 at halftime.

When Isgro was yellow-carded for a deliberate knockdown in the second half, France used the man advantage to score through Jefferson-Lee Joseph. They clinched the win with a minute to go when Antoine Dupont's inside pass gave captain Paulin Riva a try.

Dupont, the former 15s world player of the year who sacrificed the Six Nations to try for the Olympic sevens squad, has played three tournaments for France and won two golds and a bronze.

“Antoine Dupont is the best player in the world, we think,” Riva said. “When he is on the pitch, we have a lot of confidence.”

The final finished with an all-in melee. Isgro took exception to Riva's late clearout and tip-tackled him onto his neck. Isgro, the world sevens player of the year, was red-carded and a sanction may affect his Olympic appearance.

The France women have never won a tournament and were managing their final to halftime — 7-7 — until Australia cut down the errors. Then it became another Maddison Levi show.

Levi brushed off two defenders for the go-ahead try, finished off the second in the other corner, and face-palmed a defender to score her third.

Levi scored 13 of Australia's 21 tries in Madrid, including three hat tricks in five games. Her 69 tries in the season were the second best total in series history, among men and women, after Vilimoni Delasau's 83 for Fiji in the inaugural 1999-2000 season.

Arguably her biggest moment was in the semifinal against New Zealand. The clock was in red, Australia trailed 19-14, and Levi regained the restart and ended up scoring the tying try. Then Tia Hinds kicked the conversion from the touchline.

New Zealand had won the last four tournaments. The battles with Australia finished 3-3 this season. The teams also share the only two Olympic gold medals and will be the favorites again in Paris.

Australia captain Charlotte Carlick noted its importance after the final.

“Great to get a win over the Kiwis this morning, we have a ding-dong battle with them,” Caslick said. “Just got confidence out of that and belief in ourselves which is really important moving into the Paris Games.”

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AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby