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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Dubai Rugby Sevens: France call on Fijian know-how as 2024 Olympic vision starts to take shape

Fiji-born Legionnaire gets his chance as the French look to change perceptions about rugby's abridged format back at home

Tavite Veredamu will be making his debut for France in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
Tavite Veredamu will be making his debut for France in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National

Why are France no good at sevens? It is one of rugby’s enduring mysteries. Superficially, it seems a perfect match: a format that promotes flair and creativity, on a tour full of joie de vivre.

In the 15-a-side game, France are a great power, with perhaps the most lucrative domestic league, and a national team who have played in the World Cup final three times.

The abbreviated format, by contrast, does not even qualify as an afterthought. They finished 11th on the series last season, well below sides like Canada and United States who have nothing the like the rugby pedigree of France. And the French have never finished in the top five of the World Series.

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“I understand that it is a mystery that sevens is not in our culture,” said Christophe Reigt, the France sevens manager. “In the mentality of French people, sevens is a game to play on the beach. You enjoy the music and have a good time, but it is not serious sport.

“But we know, the management and the players, it is very hard work to have success in sevens.”

If Reigt has his way, the perception of France being easy beats in sevens is about to change. The Olympics will be in Paris in 2024, and they want a team worthy of competing for medals.

The grand plan has manifested itself in a variety of ways ahead of the new season. First of all, the input was sought of the only coach to win a seven gold medal so far.

Ben Ryan, the former England and Fiji coach, was recruited as a part-time consultant. France are in England’s group at the Dubai Rugby Sevens this weekend, meaning Ryan has technically been plotting the downfall of his former players.

Ben Ryan wants to grow rugby sevens as a discipline all over the world. Jordan Mansfield / Getty Images
Ben Ryan wants to grow rugby sevens as a discipline all over the world. Jordan Mansfield / Getty Images

“I’m obviously really pleased they [the England players he blooded] are doing well, but, although I see myself as a Londoner, I don’t see myself as hugely English,” Ryan said.

“I think they were joking, but the French said to me, ‘When we do a press release, can we say that you are Fijian?’

“I haven’t quite got my passport just yet, and I am still English. But I just feel like I want to get the game better.

“It would be good for the world game if France were better. It would be good for the world game if five or six other teams were up there every tournament.”

Fiji won the World Series twice, as well as the Olympics, on Ryan’s watch. As a result, he was given the Fijian name Ratu Peni Rayani Latianara, three acres of land, as well as the highest honour in the country.

His is not the only Fijian influence on this French side. Tavite Veredamu will be making his debut for France in Dubai.

No-one could accuse him of flying the flag of convenience. The powerful flanker left Fiji when he was 18 to join the French Foreign Legion, where he serves in the mobile infantry regiment.

He has seen active service in Syria and, coincidentally, was also twice stationed at Zayed Military City in Abu Dhabi, where the Legion had a training base between 2011 and 2016.

He did not play rugby at all for three years after arriving in France as an 18 year old. Nine years later, he is getting a shot at international sevens.

“I moved to France just to join the Legion,” Veredamu said. “I had three years without playing when I moved to France, and I really missed it a lot.

“I am really happy to be with the French team, it is a real honour for me. Growing up, I obviously wanted to participate with the Fijian team, but now it is a dream to be in the France team.”

Jerome Daret, the France coach, is glad to have his new recruit.

“Coming from Fiji, he has the spirit of sevens, and it is very important to have this connection, but also he is a French guy as he serves in the army,” Daret said of Veredamu. “He is a strong player and he can make a difference to our team.”

Daret, who played in Dubai in 2002 and 2003, is hoping his side can make their supporters, including the marching band who are a perennial feature of the Sevens, proud.

“We want the supporters to love this team,” the coach said. “It is important to have team spirit, and the supporters can help us at the Sevens.”