As a former rugby sevens player for Wales, Mark Thomas gives his take on this weekend’s World Rugby Sevens Repechage and revisits Monaco’s love affair with the sport.
Monaco, for most sports fans, is associated with Formula 1 and the Rolex Tennis Masters. But many do not know that Monaco has a long-standing love affair with rugby that dates back many decades.
This weekend from 18th to 20th June, the Monaco Rugby Federation and World Rugby, in partnership with the Government, are organising the World Rugby Sevens Repechage tournament at the Louis II Stadium.
Monaco will be hosting the international men’s and women’s sevens teams competing for the final Tokyo Olympic Games qualification places. For the women, the two best teams will secure a spot in Tokyo, but only one of the men’s teams will be lucky enough to head to Japan.
The pressure will be huge. Win in Monaco and you become an Olympian, the Holy Grail for many athletes. Additionally, organisers have confirmed that 5,000 fans will be able to watch the Olympic Games Sevens on the two main days of competition at the stadium so there should be a great atmosphere and the forecast is for fine weather.
Where it all began
Back in 1987 and 1988, Monaco hosted their first international rugby sevens event, the Glenlivet Invitational Sevens, where superstars like Serge Blanco and Denis Charvet won with France in 1987 and then Nick Farr Jones, Murray Mexted and Will Carling won the trophy with the Bahrain Warblers in 1988.
I was fortunate to play for the Welsh team during those years and while we lost to the French in the final, I have very fond memories of the event. It is what motivated me to come to France to play rugby, and eventually to end up living in Monaco. They say sport changes the world. It certainly changed mine, and for that I shall ever be grateful to sevens rugby, which allowed me to travel as a young man and play all over the world in tournaments in 24 countries.
Rugby sevens originated in Melrose, Scotland as far back as the 1880s, and the Melrose Sevens tournament is still played annually today. The popularity of rugby sevens increased further with the development of the Hong Kong Sevens in the 1970s and was later followed by the inclusion of the sport into the Commonwealth Games for the first time in 1998 and the establishment of the annual World Rugby Sevens Series in 1999 and the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series in 2012. In 2016, rugby sevens was contested in the Summer Olympics for the first time.
The teams hoping to make it to Tokyo
Rugby sevens is expected to be one of the most highly anticipated events of the Tokyo Games following the outstanding success of the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, which captured the nation’s imagination with record-breaking broadcast audiences and huge numbers of new rugby fans across Japan and Asia. The inclusion of rugby sevens for the first time in the Olympic Games at Rio 2016 had a profound effect on the sport, attracting an estimated 30 million new fans globally.
The women’s competition will feature Argentina, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Samoa and Tunisia. The men’s tournament will involve Chile, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, Jamaica, Mexico, Samoa, Tonga, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The women’s final is expected to be a close affair, and the favourites – France v Samoa – should be a nail biter, but the Argentinians may have something to say about that.
The men’s draw saw the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series core teams, Samoa and Ireland, paired in Pool A together with Tonga, Zimbabwe and Mexico. France were the top seeded team based on their performances in 2020 at the World Rugby Sevens Series where they finished sixth. They are drawn in Pool B along with Hong Kong, Chile, Uganda and Jamaica. France being favoured to win, they will have to overcome the speedy Samoans, the tough Tongans and the wiry Irish.
As World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said: “With Tokyo less than three months away, the rugby family is looking forward to what promises to be a special sevens tournament that personifies the togetherness, camaraderie and optimism that characterises these remarkable Olympic Games. The Monaco repechage is also symbolic in its own way – a reflection and celebration of sevens international re-emergence from the unprecedented challenges that society and sports people have faced.”
Given the Covid chaos globally, it has been extremely difficult to organise, but the drive to be in the Olympics has not deterred these teams from doing whatever it takes to get to Monaco to try to qualify. One of the potential qualifiers is Tonga. At the end of April, the Tonga Rugby Union announced that, due to quarantine rules in New Zealand, it would select a squad of European-based players to compete for the final men’s sevens spot at Tokyo. Viliami Vaki, the Tongan captain, said: “We have a playing group that are busting at the chops to get together, there’s nothing greater than playing for your country. That’s exciting because they are a level of player that have experienced different World Cups and professional competitions around the world.” Tonga could well be the dark horse in the men’s competition.
Hopeful Hong Kong Rugby coaches Paul John (winner of the RWC 7s with Wales in 2009) and Iain Monaghan, the two Celts charged with getting their respective teams to Tokyo, have been thinking outside of the box in a bid to keep things interesting. Monaghan revealed that he actually sent his players on a metaphorical journey around the world. “We shaped training around going up the seven summits of the world – Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Vinson and the Carstensz Pyramid. Needless to say, I wasn’t the most liked coach at that time because they were worked, physically,” he said. “But with that it allowed us to learn about the different cultures of the teams we will play and where they come from, and the history of their sport.
“We set out tasks like passing the ball every day the equivalent distance it would take to climb one of the mountains, we camped out and learnt how to cook different national dishes, and learnt about tribes and their values and what makes them survive so long, and how we could maybe bring that into our high-performance environment… things that gave a different slant to training.”
"Terry Kennedy will put the HAMMER down!"
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 15, 2021
Outsiders Uganda have been drawn alongside France, Chile, Hong Kong and Jamaica in Pool B of the men’s Olympic Repechage tournament, and have come up against Les Bleus twice at the Emirates Invitational Sevens in Dubai. The Cranes lost both matches against the French, but they have better records against the other teams they will play in Monaco. Uganda will arrive in the Principality on Sunday hoping to take the biggest step yet on the team’s journey under head coach Tolbert Onyango. Onyango is hopeful that his players are able to handle the pressure of playing in the tournament as they attempt to cause a few shocks and book their ticket to Tokyo.
“A knockout tournament normally comes with its own pressures,” said Onyango. “Pressure to perform properly throughout the tournament, so there’s no room for error — you snooze, you lose.”
Irish Rugby Football Union director of Sevens and Women’s rugby Anthony Eddy has selected an experienced group to travel to Monaco, with a dozen of the 14-man squad having featured on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens series previously for Ireland, with the uncapped duo Gavin Mullin and Ulster flyer Aaron Sextoncompleting the panel.
“A number of players have been preparing for this tournament and opportunity for a number of years and they all know exactly what is at stake,” said Anthony Eddy. “I know they will be determined to be at their best and put in a performance over the weekend that they can be proud of. All the teams participating are chasing the same outcome so we must be at our best and we are looking forward to it.”
France expect both their men’s and women’s teams to qualify and “are craving qualification”, according to France Sevens Women’s coach David Courteix. However, as the old wolf of the sevens stage that he is, David Courteix knows only too well the cost of too much confidence. “We will go to Monaco to have a performance and this will allow us, I hope, to qualify for the Games. But everyone will want it too! Nobody thinks that it will be a secured qualification.”
That will mean being very opportunistic and overly optimistic, because if they win this tournament, they will have the green lights to challenge the teams at the Olympics and will arrive in full confidence with a huge craving.
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) June 8, 2021
For the winning teams, it will be even more beneficial since they have played a very high-level competition a month before, they will have had the necessary preparation to be able to be ready in Tokyo. As French men’s coach Jerome Daret put it – as a good connoisseur of sevens and French gastronomy, “We can put all the ingredients in there, but what is important is to make the recipe on the day.”
Samoa have both their women’s Manusina and men’s Manu Samoa teams competing and the two teams came close to qualifying for Rio 2016, as Manu Samoa lost the repechage final to Spain on the last play of the match, while the country’s women were beaten by Kazakhstan in their quarter-final. Brian Lima is manager of the team, a legend of four Rugby World Cups and known as “The Chiroporactor” because he hit you so hard in the tackle you’d have to go see the chiropractor after the game. In one World Cup, he tackled somebody so hard he knocked himself out.
“I want Samoans to come together in Samoa to celebrate if Manusina qualify for the Olympics,” he told World Rugby. “We are confident we have the best team who wants to qualify for the Olympics. Our players have international experience and they’ve played the best sevens teams in the world like Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.”
Their plans for Olympic qualification have been affected by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic like everybody and Samoa’s men were last in action at the HSBC Canada Sevens in March 2020 where they lost their ninth-place semi-final to France — who will arguably be their biggest rivals for qualification in Monaco. “Losing to Spain [in the Rio 2016 repechage final] was really heartbreaking, so that’s what kept most of us in, to just keep the Olympic dream alive to come back and really find any opportunity to be an Olympian.”
Careers will be made in Monaco
The spectacular thing about sevens is that anyone can have the “flyer”, the player who has such breath-taking speed no-one can stop them, and the stadium comes alive in anticipation. The entertainment and enjoyment of a sevens event is fantastic. The thrills, the spills, the hits, the speed will delight the crowd and I am sure it will be a huge success like it was four years ago.
This weekend is bound to show us some new rugby stars of the future as the sevens circuit is where many of the greats started their career – rugby legends such us Jonah Lomu, David Campese, Christian Cullen, Lawrence Dallaglio, George North and Cheslin Kobi all started on the sevens circuit. If anybody knows anything about sevens, anything can happen on the day.
As for the final, my pick is France v Samoa. The winner? We will have to wait and see.
Top photo of former Wales rugby player Mark Thomas