From Division C of Europe to the World Series: What next for Ireland 7s?

IT WAS FITTING that the camera dwelled on Harry McNulty after Ireland had beaten hosts Hong Kong in last weekend’s Qualifier final, securing their place on the World Rugby Sevens Series next season.

Former Munster academy man McNulty’s visible emotion was understandable given that he was there when the Ireland Men’s Sevens launched this journey in June 2015 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Harry McNulty was overcome at the final whistle in Hong Kong.

After the IRFU had ignored men’s sevens for some years, the arrival of David Nucifora as performance director in 2014 ignited the dormant programme and Ireland restarted in Division C of the Rugby Europe Championships.

Mark Roche, another man involved last weekend in Hong Kong, was also at that 2015 tournament, where Ireland hammered the likes of Turkey, Belarus and Montenegro.

Ireland rapidly rose through the European ranks that summer – beating nations such as Malta and Serbia along the way – to earn themselves a shot at qualification for the 2016 Olympics but they lost in the quarter-finals of that repechage tournament in Monaco.

The upward trajectory has continued in recent years, however, with 2018 proving particularly fruitful as Ireland won the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series, finished third at the London Sevens as an invitational team, and earned a ninth-place finish at the World Cup.

The major setback was losing in the semi-finals of last year’s Hong Kong Qualifier in agonising circumstances, meaning Anthony Eddy’s squad had to wait until last weekend to right the wrongs and secure top-tier status for next season.

It’s interesting to note that Leinster’s Adam Byrne and Munster’s Alex Wootton were part of that first Ireland squad in 2015, while Tom Daly – currently on loan at Connacht from Leinster – was the captain.

Nucifora and Eddy, the IRFU’s director of women’s and sevens rugby, have always pushed the developmental aspect of sevens, stressing that this programme could help produce better 15s players for Irish rugby too.

They can list Rory O’Loughlin, Dan Goggin, Barry Daly and Nick Timoney as others to have passed through the Ireland sevens set-up, while Munster’s Shane Daly and Leinster’s Jimmy O’Brien were superb in the seven-man code last season.

Jordan Conroy was top try-scorer in Hong Kong with 10. Source: Yu Chun Christopher Wong/INPHO

It’s the likes of McNulty – released by Munster in 2014 – who are the real success stories, however. A hard-working forward in sevens, he has essentially been ever-present and scored the opening try in last weekend’s final against Hong Kong.

Captain Billy Dardis, who finished his time with Leinster in 2017, has developed into an influential sevens halfback, with his restarts often proving crucial.

Tullamore man Jordan Conroy, previously part of Connacht’s academy, has become the try-scoring star of this Ireland team and will bring his prolific and searingly-quick finishing to the Series next season. 

Indeed, only one of last weekend’s 13-player squad in Hong Kong is currently attached to a province, Leinster’s Hugo Keenan.

Several of the others have been in the provincial set-ups before but now focus on club rugby and predominantly sevens, taking great pride in wearing the green jersey on the international stage.

Now, these players can relish the prospect of dining at the top table in the glamorous and often thrilling World Sevens Series, with trips to Dubai, Cape Town, Hamilton, Sydney, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Paris to look forward to.

Ireland will aim to be immediately competitive, their ambitions extending beyond merely surviving in their first season.

Nucifora has been happy to push resources into sevens rugby, with the spend on sevens rugby [encompassing the men and women’s programmes] rising from €121,795 in the 2013/14 season to €483,526 last season.

Ireland celebrate their success in Hong Kong. Source: Yu Chun Christopher Wong/INPHO

That’s a strong budget and Ireland’s preparation for Hong Kong last weekend took in trips to Spain, Italy and South Africa in recent months, while Eddy’s squad train as hard as any full-time professionals.

The addition of high-quality support staff like head of athletic performance Allan Temple-Jones, who joined after a decade with the successful South Africa sevens programme, and performance analyst Alan Walsh has been important in recent years.

Payment of the players who give so much to the programme is now an even more important issue.

Negotiations for the contracts covering the current season were intense and prolonged, with the players initially attempting to hold out for more than the €18,000 on offer before eventually agreeing to the deal.

That remuneration is well short of what 15s players who train professionally bring in, but these players have been willing to make sacrifices and combine sevens rugby with other part-time work or study.

Those contracts will now surely be revisited and increased ahead of next season, with even more time, effort and focus required from Ireland’s players as they take on the Series for the first time.

It does seem likely that Eddy and Nucifora will continue to push for players from the provincial academies to be involved on the Series, having seen the manner in which the likes of Rieko and Akira Ioane – to name just two – have shone for New Zealand in sevens before going onto bigger things in 15s.

A strong core of sevens-only players is the real key, though, as we see on the Series every single season. Players flitting in and out of sevens from the 15s game simply doesn’t work and any transitions will need to be committed and extremely well-planned out.

Before the prospect of the Series, Ireland face into a busy summer.

They are again an invitational team for the London Sevens on 25-26 May and the Paris Sevens on 1-2 June, when they will hope to show their class against the very best teams.

Mark Roche, left, was there at the start in 2015, while captain Billy Dardis has excelled in sevens. Source: Yu Chun Christopher Wong/INPHO

Ireland then head to Moscow on June 22-23 for the first leg of their Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series title defence, allowing them to warm up for a huge tournament in July.

The European qualifying tournament for the 2020 Olympics takes place in Colomiers, France on 13-14 July, when Ireland will have the chance to achieve what would be another major milestone in qualifying for the Games.

It will be a difficult task, with Series regulars such as France and Spain targetting that tournament and only the winners advancing into the Olympics.

The fact that England – who will be the qualifying nation for Great Britain – currently sit outside the top four of the Series, and therefore outside the automatic Olympic qualifying spots, is also a worry for Ireland.

If Ireland fail in Colomiers but earn a top-three finish, there would be one final chance to reach the Tokyo Games in a 12-team Olympic qualification repechage tournament in June 2020, where again only the winners will go through.

Whatever happens in Colomiers, this season will finish for Ireland with the second leg of the Grand Prix Series in Łódź, Poland on July 20-21, giving Eddy’s squad an opportunity to end the campaign with silverware.

The players will take holidays in August and return to training in September as they look towards the Series.

The journey rolls on.

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