Sport

GOLD STANDARD

Antoine Dupont, French rugby’s essential workhorse and universal point of reference

Antoine Dupont, French rugby’s essential workhorse and universal point of reference
France's Antoine Dupont ahead of the Rugby World Cup 2023 quarter final match against South Africa. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Yoan Valat)

France’s 15s side has toiled in the latest edition of the Six Nations. By contrast, the country’s sevens outfit is on an upward trajectory. The latter is partly due to the presence of Antoine Dupont, while the former may be a result of his absence. 

It was October 2023. The French collectively held their breath as the decision of whether the skipper of the senior men’s rugby side, Antoine Dupont, would play in their crucial Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against South Africa was yet to be made.

The talismanic scrumhalf had broken his cheekbone as Les Bleus cruised to a comfortable 96-0 win over Namibia in the pool phase. Initially, there were fears that the diminutive playmaker’s World Cup was over, along with any realistic hopes of France winning their maiden world title.

However, following surgery, he was cleared to play against the Boks. He spotted a titanium mask to protect his face. He was not fully recovered but was in good enough shape to play one of the best matches of his life as he pulled the strings for the World Cup hosts.

Ultimately, Dupont’s individual brilliance was not enough as the South Africans’ cohesion saw them squeeze past Les Bleus with a 29-28 win, leaving the hosts devastated after the humdinger encounter.

Sevens heaven

Since then, Dupont has dusted himself off and recently made history by inspiring the French sevens side to victory in the most recent final of the shorter format of rugby. It was the country’s first success since they won during a home leg back in 2005.

The French trounced Great Britain 21-0 in the final of the Los Angeles leg of the HSBC SVNS world series to claim gold and climb from seventh to fourth spot on the overall standings of the tournament.

Dupont made his sevens debut a week prior to France’s victory in the USA. In the previous leg — staged in Vancouver — the 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year led his country to a bronze medal.

Les Bleus built on that great display in Canada by climbing all the way to the top in Los Angeles.

Despite his clearly immense contribution to France’s sevens setup, Dupont downplayed his impact on the team.

“My role is that of a team player,” stated the 27-year-old, who Springboks star Cheslin Kolbe once described as being “naturally gifted” and “not human” following their time together at French outfit Toulon.

“Besides, I’m learning, I’m not going to make big speeches when it’s only my second tournament. These are high-level athletes and players who are preparing for these events,” Dupont stated.

“Last year the team finished fourth overall and I wasn’t there.”

Antoine Dupont

France’s Antoine Dupont. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Christophe Petit Tesson)

Regardless of his modesty, the French sevens side are sure to benefit even more from Dupont’s outstanding rugby mind ahead of the Paris Olympics, where the playmaker is set to feature.

The star sees things that many people who have and still play the game don’t. Even in instances where rivals do see what the scrumhalf sees, they usually lack the brilliance to execute their vision as well as Dupont does his.

He is partly aided in this by the fact that he can kick with both feet. This in addition to scoring the odd try, as well as disruptive defensive play when it is required of him.

Contrasting fortunes

The lack of these characteristics, combined with the absence of Dupont’s leadership and his X-factor, is something that France’s 15s team has sorely missed in the Six Nations.

Les Bleus trail runaway log leaders and reigning champions Ireland by nine points three matches into the annual tussle, which also includes Italy, Scotland, Wales and England.

In Dupont’s absence, as he gears up for Olympic participation, his 15s compatriots have been comfortably beaten by Ireland. They squeezed past Scotland with a 20-16 win, before Italy frustrated them during a 13-all stalemate.

Les Bleus’ 15s next face Wales on 10 March as they bid to alter their fortunes. However, Welsh coach Warren Gatland is out to pile the misery on Dupont-less French.

“Dupont is a massive loss for them,” said Gatland. “That is his leadership and experience. His ability as probably the best player in the world to change a game.

“I’ve seen some clips of him in the sevens and the impact that he is already having in that programme.”

Antoine Dupont

Antoine Dupont prepares during the warm-up prior to the Six Nations match against Scotland. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Christophe Petit Tesson)

Gold standard

After the Bok-induced home heartbreak during last year’s World Cup, Dupont has his eyes firmly set on gold in the 2024 Games in his homeland.

“When I got involved in this Olympic project, it was to get a medal. Obviously, [gold]. I knew the guys were capable of it,” Dupont said after France’s golden moment in LA.

This latest result and a few more similar displays are sure to boost the confidence of the French.

The team’s confidence is already sky-high thanks to the presence and contribution of Dupont, who will undoubtedly be a point of reference in Paris as the French chase a maiden sevens medal at the Games.

France’s best result at the Olympics was seventh place in Rio in 2016. DM

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