'They probably won't know who he is!' - Los Angeles the next stop for Antoine Dupont in his bid for Olympic gold

Dupont is set for his second outing on the sevens circuit in Los Angeles this weekend
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Antoine Dupont is arguably the most famous rugby player in the world but he will be largely overlooked by the American fans as he spearheads France’s bid for the title at the HSBC SVNS tournament taking place in Los Angeles this weekend.

Rugby Union cannot match the impact of American Football, Basketball, Baseball and Ice Hockey in the United States sporting psyche and as Mike Friday, the English-born head coach of the USA Eagles Sevens knows, the locals want local heroes who are wearing the stars and stripes to send them into a frenzy.

Friday tells TRU: “Credit to Dupont, the bloke is the best 15’s player in the world by some way. To be prepared to put his reputation on the line and come and try and participate in the World Series, I think it’s a testament to his character. It’s a real compliment to the World Series that the best player in the world does want to see how he can cope in the other format.

“In America, they’re a bit insular in terms of understanding who these superstars are. They didn’t really know who All Black Ma’a Nonu was when he came to Major League Rugby.

"I think it has probably not generated interest in the LA event. It’s not like Lionel Messi turning up. Soccer is well-regarded and the way that he has made an impact in America has been massive. Ultimately, the Americans are very patriotic and they need their team to win for them to be interested so they don’t just need an American team, they need a winning American team.

“I think it [Dupont’s arrival] has driven interest in the world game. I’m not so sure it will drive interest in the American landscape as much as they would hope because ultimately, the Americans have to fall in love and they want to see the boy from down the road in America do well. They’re interested in that high school story rather than the big overseas player coming over.

“If Antoine plays in Hong Kong, it’s a very different format because that’s very much an audience that is what I would call 'traditional rugby knowledgeable audiences', not young, immature sporting audiences like we have in America."

Dupont is the most decorated French player of all time and he is the only Les Bleus player to win the Six Nations Player of the Year three times. His trophy cabinet also features the 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year award and three TOP14 titles.

Failing to lead France to 2023 Rugby World Cup glory on home soil was a massive blow and prompted his decision to aim for Olympic Gold at the Paris games this summer.

That meant he had to make his mark on the sevens circuit before the Games and his debut came in Vancouver last weekend, scoring a last-minute try to help France beat Friday's USA in the third-place play-off.

“There is no doubt that when Dupont was 16,17,18, he was probably a rockstar at sevens but obviously turning professional and focusing on 15s, he wasn’t able to participate.

"But when you look at Dupont as a person and as a player; 'Does he have the right athletic stature and DNA to be a world-class sevens player? Absolutely, but I think it’s wrong and a bit disrespectful for anybody to think that Dupont can just come across and be the same player as he is in the 15s game where he’s been honing and sharpening his craft for the last seven or eight years.

“What I will say about him [Dupont] is, he came in and more importantly he didn’t look out of place, he didn’t set the world alight (in Vancouver) but that’s the mark of the man. He didn’t try to. He tried to fit into the system, do his job, be selfless for the team and wait for the right moments.

"It was interesting to see how comfortable he was defensively. He wasn’t phased by the amount of space he had to cover and didn’t do what a lot of 15’s players do when they over-chase and hook under to defend rather than hold the line and hold the inside shoulders and push forward.

“I think what we saw from Dupont was not just how good his character is, but also how much he really does understand the game and the transition that is required.

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"I think the challenge for him is that if he really wants to become what we all know he could be, will he be allowed to stay with the sevens programme continuously through to the Paris Olympics or will he be expected to go back and play for Toulouse a couple of weeks after LA before he comes back for Hong Kong?

“Will he be going in and out? I think that makes it even more difficult for him to cement himself and get himself in the right rhythm to become a sevens player come the Olympics. I think that could be the challenge for him."

While it is difficult to avoid the Dupont factor for the teams he will face, Friday is keeping his focus on his Eagles who had their best tournament in Vancouver. Alongside Dupont, 37-year-old Perry Baker was also picked in the 'Dream Team' and is heading for his third Olympic Games as one of the greatest speed merchants sevens has ever seen.

Friday knows that success in LA this weekend provides an opportunity for his men to unlock the hearts and minds of the American public, especially with the Paris Olympics fast approaching.

Los Angeles will stage the next Olympic games in 2028, the 2031 Men’s Rugby World Cup and the Women’s World Cup in 2033 which all offer USA Rugby outstanding opportunities to raise the profile of the sport in the country.

Friday says: “What you’ve got to realise, for Americans, is that the Olympics is the pinnacle along with the super sports. So if you can’t be an NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB player but you can be an Olympian, then that captures the hearts and the minds of the American public and sporting landscape and everybody in America watches the Olympics.

“That is the road to creating the interest and the opportunity for the game to take a grip via the national team and the Olympics. Ultimately, the Americans are very patriotic and they need their team to win for them to be interested.

"In order for the game to take off in the Men’s and the Women’s, we need to see continued investment and support of the sevens programmes because that’s the marketing sweep and that’s the link to the Olympics and that’s the way to American hearts."

On Baker and USA's display in Vancouver, Friday adds: “Perry has been fantastic. He came to the game late, he did a lot of hard work before anybody saw him. Perry is a very talented athlete, he was close to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles but suffered a knee injury. He was able to transfer all the skills and become the rugby player he has. Genetically, he is blessed to still look and run like he does despite being 37 years of age.

“It was a decent performance [from the Eagles in Vancouver]. Some of it was good, some of it was sh*t. It was one of them weekends and we finished a respectable fourth. We’re pleased with the progress but we were disappointed with pieces of our game in important moments.

“To now have New Zealand, Australia, USA and Samoa certainly makes it a spicy group here in Los Angeles and it’s going to be a tough assignment on home territory. Argentina are riding high and when young men are confident, that’s a big positive. They’ve won the last three but been in all four finals."

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“I think everyone has one eye on the Paris Olympics. It’s interesting. I think we’re all trying to come to terms with the new structure of the World Series. We’re so used to the most consistent team being rewarded with the World Series but ultimately, it’s all about just getting to Madrid [end of May/start of June] where the top eight will battle it out in the final for the World Series.”

While the sevens circuit and another Olympic Games are dominating Friday’s thoughts, he has also been keeping a close eye on the fate of former club Wasps and has been heartened by the news they are set to create a new home in the South East of England after financial problems saw them suspended from the Premiership.

“It’s brilliant and they’re returning to where I live” added Friday.

"I think it’s amazing if the phoenix from the flames can actually happen and I’ve been abreast of it all. We’ve got the possibility of a ground, a financially secure infrastructure and then it’s just a case of trying to find a credible competition which seems like politics to me but hopefully, it can all be resolved and we will see the return of Wasps and it would be wonderful.

“I think making a home in the county of Kent where they are in desperate need of a first class rugby club, I think it’s a very smart move in a very untapped rugby market and there’s a lot of rugby playing schools and amateur clubs in that area as well which can be drawn upon. That could, in time, allow Wasps to return to what they once were.”