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'When it didn't work out in Leinster, I wasn't sure if it was me being a journeyman'

Gavin Mullin is now part of the Ireland 7s set-up who are targeting Olympics qualification.

Mullin in action for the Ireland 7s.
Mullin in action for the Ireland 7s.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WEEKEND MORNINGS for Gavin Mullin as a young fella meant one thing: Super Rugby. 

He’d be planted in front of the TV with his breakfast, delighting in the latest show of audacious offloading and side-stepping excitement.

Watching the Crusaders was sacrosanct. To this day, the Kiwi side remain the 23-year-old’s favourite team and he has never lost his grá for attacking rugby, one of the reasons he’s now enjoying a new adventure with the Ireland 7s, who hope to earn Tokyo Olympics qualification next month. 

Mullin’s time with Leinster ended last summer when there was no space in midfield in Leo Cullen’s squad. His three years in the academy saw him get just two caps off the bench for the senior team for a combined 21 minutes – “I’m not sure I’m really counting those,” he says – meaning he never had real opportunity to show what he can do.

Mullin hadn’t been looking around for another contract when Covid-19 came into our lives, his sense being that professional rugby might not be for him after all.

His father, former Ireland and Lions centre Brendan, had always encouraged his son to view rugby as one part of his life rather than the be-all-and-end-all.

“He’s always onto me about making sure I have both sides of things – rugby and college, even looking beyond that to a job,” explains Gavin, who recently finished the final exam of his Business and Law degree in UCD.

“When it didn’t work out in Leinster, I wasn’t sure if it was me just trying to keep on playing and being a journeyman pro in the Championship or Pro D2 or whatever it would be.

“My Dad is a smart man. I love talking to him about rugby but he’s also a smart businessman and I talk to him about that too. He always said to me about not just putting all of my eggs in one basket because at the end of the day, it’s a business and they can get rid of you pretty quick. You have to be sure you’re covering yourself.”

With the centre’s time in Leinster concluding and Ireland in lockdown, Mullin was focusing on getting his degree finished when the IRFU called and asked if he would come in for Ireland 7s training – an avenue he hadn’t considered.

gavin-mullin Mullin during his time with Leinster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

He gave his friend Jack Kelly a shout – the former Leinster fullback having gone into the 7s set-up before him – and got positive reports back, so threw himself into the challenge. It has been a frustrating time for the 7s game during the pandemic, with Ireland limited to a few competitions against provincial academy teams until last weekend’s International Rugby 7s competition over in the UK.

Mullin impressed in his first genuine competitive outing for Ireland as they beat Great Britain and the US to the title across three days of high-octane action. Numerous training camps meant he knew what to expect to a degree, but it was still a major step up.

“You can get humbled pretty quick,” says Mullin of finding his feet in 7s.  

“You have to be careful when you’re defending or deciding to hit a ruck because things move quickly and if you’re not on the ball, it’s a turnover within seconds. You’re under pressure a lot, your passing has to be good, but I love attacking rugby so it just suits me throwing the ball around and trying to play off the cuff.”

His new duties involve being part of the three-man scrums, while he says some of his friends in Leinster are slagging him for wearing lineout lifting blocks on his legs now. 

“You have to be a jack of all trades!” says Mullin with a laugh.

Anthony Eddy’s squad have a huge challenge ahead of them on 19-20 June in Monaco at the World Rugby Sevens Repechage, the winner of which will secure the final place at the men’s 7s competition in this summer’s Olympic Games.

Fellow World Series side France will be favourites to advance, while Samoa will be another threat, meaning Mullin says he and his team-mates can’t even begin to really think about what playing in Japan would be like.

“There will be nine other teams the same as us, just dying to go to Tokyo. It’s going to be tough and 7s is all about small margins. If you’re off 10% on the day, you’ll be knocked out.”

If they can pull it off, it would be a major milestone achievement for Irish 7s rugby and for Mullin, who is still so new to the game. 

gavin-mullin-and-michael-courtney Mullin is a UCD club man. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

A star for Blackrock College in his school days, he impressed for the Ireland U20s in 2017 and advanced into the Leinster academy, making his senior debut that same year against Zebre in the Pro14.

He got another brief stint off the bench for the province in 2019 against Edinburgh but with Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose key men in midfield, as well as competition from the likes of Noel Reid, Joe Tomane, Conor O’Brien, Jimmy O’Brien, and Tommy O’Brien, that was to be it in terms of senior exposure.

“I was just unlucky that the level of competition in the centres at Leinster was another level,” says Mullin. “No matter what you’re doing, it’s always going to be tough to get a game. You put so much into it and at the end of the day, I was kind of wondering how much I was really getting out of it.

“Obviously, that’s not to say I didn’t love playing for Leinster. I really look back with a lot of fond memories.”

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The good times were mainly with the Leinster A team, beating Bristol away in the B&I Cup one season, winning the Celtic Cup alongside the likes of Ryan Baird, Rónan Kelleher, and Harry Byrne another.

Mullin particularly enjoyed being coached by Felipe Contepomi and Stuart Lancaster. An insight from the latter regarding former Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard’s scanning skills stands out.

“Stuart was talking about how Lampard’s dad used to be in the stand and always shouting at him, ‘Take a picture, take a picture.’

“Someone counted the number of times Frank Lampard would turn his head before he got the ball and it was another level above other players. Stuart encouraged us to look at rugby in that way.

“That’s what separates good players from great players, someone like Johnny Sexton is seeing everything two phases before everyone else. He’s constantly scanning. That really underlined to me the importance of getting your head up and constantly looking, even if the ball is on the other side of the pitch.

“Coaches say to ‘look up’ all the time but no one really does it. That constant scanning, taking pictures, seeing what’s in front of you can make some difference. It applies to any sport.”

gavin-mullin-and-max-malins Mullin playing for the Ireland U20s back in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Mullin is making sure it applies to his 7s rugby now, even if the lung-busting pace of the game can leave players’ head spinning and their vision narrowing. A passage of ball-in-play that lasted three minutes against the US last weekend was a new lesson in pain.

Mullins’ 7s contract with the IRFU is due to expire at the end of July, by which time he might have played in the Olympics, and he’s not sure what will happen beyond that.

He has a college degree in his back pocket, pending a positive result from that last exam, so there is assurance in that area of his life.

The idea of travelling as part of the 7s World Series appeals, while there’s a 7s Rugby World Cup to come next year, but Mullin isn’t spending too much time thinking that far down the tracks.

“Let’s just see where this takes me.”

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Murray Kinsella

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