Despite the damage and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in South America, the Chilean sevens team has managed to persevere and prepare ahead of a second trip to Monaco chasing their Olympic dream.
As in 2016, when Spain shocked the world and earned the ticket to Rio, Edmundo Olfos will again be the Chilean coach, and Felipe Brangier one of his star players. In fact, from that Cóndores 7s side, they are the only two that are returning.
“In 2016, we came unstuck in the quarter-finals; it wasn't a good tournament for us," recalls Olfos. "On our way to Monaco, we played in Rome a week before and it wasn't a good strategy. The long time away affected us, the team did not take it well. And we were not at our performance peak."
That peak arrived at the start of 2019, even if they did not have a good Olympic Qualification Tournament. "We couldn't master the challenges of weather," recalls Olfos, of a tournament played at home in Santiago against wet and cold conditions. Argentina confirmed their ticket to Tokyo, while Brazil and Chile qualified for Monaco.
The Brazilian Tupis have removed themselves from the Repechage due to COVID-19 restrictions, leaving Chile to carry the regional flag in the men's tournament, with Argentina and Colombia as the two women's representatives.
Chile trusts that they will reach the tournament in good stead. Rugby activities stopped, naturally, at the start of the pandemic, but could slowly return to action, with young players with bright futures and a group of experienced leaders combining.
“Personally, when something is out of my influence sphere, I let it go," said Olfos, on dealing with the challenges of COVID-19.
“Having faith in scientists and knowing that at some stage things would get better, I always expected that things would get better and we'd move ahead.
"I kept my cool. This stop gave us time to recover some injuries, such as Felipe Brangier's.
“Out of all the bad, there were good things," added former Rugby World Cup Sevens player Olfos, stating that "players were able to develop weapons for sevens".
One eye on Cape Town 2022
Chile have already played in warm-up tournaments in Madrid and Dubai, as crucial preparation for Monaco.
Brangier, who has been in the sevens team for over a decade, explained: "We are one of the few teams that have had match action. These preparation tournaments allowed new players the opportunity to gain experience at this level, also allowing us to get rid of the bad vibes of not being able to play for so long."
Brangier and Benjamín Devits will be the experienced heads in the team. "The rest are players of the future, with bright futures but still a bit green; they go to start somewhere. They reach the team with a better preparation to the one we used to have at their age; because of this, reaching a high standard is much quicker," said Brangier, who had to postpone his wedding three times due to COVID-19 restrictions before finally tying the knot. He also recovered from a knee operation after an injury sustained in the Uruguay stop of the inaugural HSBC World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series, where Chile finished in fourth place.
Even if Tokyo is the big short-term goal, Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 in Cape Town and a medal at the Pan American Games in Santiago 2023 are all on the agenda for this Chilean side. But first things first, a tough pool in Monaco, with France, Hong Kong, Uganda and Jamaica, awaits.
“We have to have the perfect tournament, play consistently in each game, make no unforced errors that have previously cost us dearly in games and tournaments. All connected and focused. And we must have possession as we are more dangerous in attack than defence," stated Brangier.
About the opposition, Olfos added: "France first, Hong Kong next – two very tough games. Our bet is to give a big surprise.
“In Dubai, the French had a very good team, with many youngsters. They put 40 points on us. This game will be very big on the mental side.
“Hong Kong is always a very professional team, with good players and staff. They are also competitive, similar to us. We don't know how they've been preparing."
There is also a lot of respect for Jamaica and Uganda: "very dangerous, they play very much like Kenya. In sevens, the young team can take the big one head-on.
“Not reaching the goal in Monaco won't be a failure. Ours is a young team that will aim for Rugby World Cup Sevens and a medal in Santiago 2023," closed Olfos, hinting that, with most of his players around 21 and 23 years old, the future is very bright.
Photo credit: Víctor Montalva/Chile Rugby