Antoine Dupont’s Olympic sevens adventure begins in Vancouver

<span>Antoine Dupont was left dejected by <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:France;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">France</a>’s loss to <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:South Africa;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">South Africa</a> in the World Cup quarter-final.</span><span>Photograph: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters</span>

“It’s the holy grail of sport,” Antoine Dupont declared on the Team France social media channels last week. As he sets out on his quest for Olympic gold, the Toulouse scrum-half has swapped this year’s Six Nations for the World Sevens Series, a competition he has been gearing up for since the turn of the year.

The 2021 World Player of the Year will be making his highly anticipated sevens debut in Vancouver on Friday evening and is set to be involved in the Los Angeles leg of the tour the following weekend as well. At BC Place, France will begin their campaign against the USA, before taking on Australia and Samoa in their other Pool B fixtures.

Related: France’s Antoine Dupont to miss Six Nations and focus on Paris Olympics

There is little doubt that, as unfamiliar as Dupont may be with the abridged format, his unrivalled sense of invention, timing and awareness will be gamechanging assets for the team. The scrum-half nevertheless said he was still adapting to the demands of sevens: “It’s still the same sport, but the principles of the game are different, the physical profiles as well. I’m still learning.”

His first taste came at the start of January, when he dropped by for the day at the team’s training camp. Fittingly, the session focused on kick-off routines – but not before an initiation ceremony for Dupont, consisting of a set of 10 burpees in the middle of the pitch, surrounded by his new teammates.

“He has all the skills needed to perform,” said the head coach, Jérôme Daret afterwards. “The real challenge will be helping him adapt to the workload and the different physical demands of sevens.”

Playing half a dozen matches over an extended weekend will indeed be uncharted territory for the new recruit, but Daret is confident. “ He’s stepping out of his comfort zone but wants to get right down to it.”

After a month back with Toulouse, Dupont returned last week for the team’s stay at the national training centre in the woods of Vincennes. After a week at the complex, where French medal hopes from other sports have also been training, the 14-man squad flew to Vancouver to continue preparations.

Beyond the next two weeks, Dupont is expected to be back with the squad every month, before taking part in the final tournament of the season in Madrid at the end of May. Whether he competes before then remains to be seen, as Toulouse’s Champions Cup commitments will take precedence.

France’s sevens captain, Paulin Riva, a fellow Auch academy graduate who will carry the Olympic torch in his native Gers region in May, believes the code switch will be a success. However, he is also aware of the increased attention and pressure that will fall squarely on Dupont. “He wants to succeed in everything he undertakes,” Riva said. “Given that he won’t be with us for long, he knows he needs to perform straight away.”

Related: From ‘village lad’ to GQ cover star: Dupont’s rise to the top of world rugby

The Toulon wing Gabin Villière, who earned 43 sevens caps before joining Fabien Galthié’s setup in 2020, recently told Midi Olympique that “it’s difficult to offer advice to a player like him. I would just tell him that he needs to make sure he gets the kicking right. You can’t just get rid of the ball. That can cost you dearly.”

Dupont is stepping into a team that have been steadily progressing since failing to qualify for the 2020 OlympicThey have reached the quarter-final stage in the past two tournaments and clinched a top-five finish for the first time last season – notably making the final in their previous Vancouver appearance. Dupont’s arrival could propel them to a first title since 2005.

Looking further ahead, the Olympic tournament will present the 27-year-old with a second chance at a crowning moment on home turf. It will be Dupont’s first appearance back at the Stade de France since the defeat by South Africa at the World Cup, a tournament he seemed destined to take by storm.

The scrum-half will not be the host nation’s sole poster boy this time, especially if Kylian Mbappé and Victor Wembanyama end up taking part. He will, however, be the first star to take to the field, given the sevens tournament kicks off on 24 July, two days before the opening ceremony.

While the temporary switch to sevens will have left club and country frustrated at his absence, the move does have wider support among fans. A poll carried out by the radio station RTL last week found that 78% of rugby followers approved of his decision, although 52% also agreed it had exacerbated Les Bleus’ post-World Cup downturn in form.

In any case, leading France to gold would invariably propel Dupont to a new level of prominence on the national stage, partly make up for last autumn’s disappointment and pen a new chapter of his own legend.