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World Cup a primary focus for Ireland men's 7s after Hong Kong heartbreak

The Irish side will have to wait until next season for another shot at qualifying for the World Series.

THE IRELAND MEN’S sevens team got a reminder of the brutal nature of the sport last weekend in Hong Kong, as their dream of securing a place on the World Rugby Sevens Series for next season disintegrated in roughly a minute and a half.

IreM7s Ireland were left devastated in Hong Kong.

That’s a long time in sevens rugby, of course, where the importance of every single bounce of the ball is magnified.

Ireland were tied at 7-7 with Japan in the semi-final of the Qualifier tournament at the Hong Kong 7s, with less than 20 seconds of the game remaining.

Mark Roche, who was outstanding throughout the competition for Ireland and had scored and superbly converted their only try in this game, chipped ahead and got the benefit of the ball bouncing back off the post.

It seemed as though it would sit up perfectly for Roche to gather and score his second try, but the ball just bounced a little too low and Ireland had to watch in agony as Roche failed to control it and the ball slipped forward.

Ireland

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Play resumed with 11 seconds remaining and Japan conjured a winner with the clock a minute and 21 seconds into the red.

Just as every bounce of the ball is so important, every missed tackle in sevens is deeply damaging and Ireland slipped off two as Kameli Soejima scored the try that broke Irish hearts.

Japan

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Ireland have made big strides of progress in men’s sevens since the programme was relaunched in 2015, but up against a side that had been on the World Series for two of the three seasons prior to this one, they didn’t have enough.

A dropped ball over the tryline earlier in this same game was also costly – though Ireland did score through Roche from the subsequent scrum – and the harsh lessons will stick with Ireland’s players for some time.

Of course, Anthony Eddy’s side would still have had to beat Germany in the Qualifier final to get onto the circuit and there were no guarantees in that regard.

Ireland got a sniff of something special in Hong Kong with their convincing pool wins against the Cook Islands, Jamaica and Uruguay, as well as the strong quarter-final win over Zimbabwe, although Japan provided a real jump in quality.

Ireland have done well in training camps against elite sides like England and Wales this season, but the searing pressure of this competition, especially with the heat of Hong Kong factored in, was a different ball game altogether.

The disappointment is acute but the men’s sevens programme will roll on, with more big targets coming hot on the heels of the Qualifier.

Ireland will be part of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco from 20 to 22 July, the first time the country’s men’s team will be involved since 2009, when Felix Jones, James Coughlan and Paul Marshall were part of a squad that lost in the Bowl final.

Felix Jones tackles Taif Al Delamie Felix Jones tackles Taif Al Delamie of the Arab Gulf at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens. Source: Paul Seiser/INPHO

The Ireland women’s sevens team will also be part of the competition in the US this summer and it promises to be an exciting weekend for Irish rugby.

While securing a place on the Sevens Series for next season would have catapulted the men’s sevens game to a new level in the Irish rugby consciousness, a decent World Cup would go a long way too.

Before that, Ireland will play in the London [2 and 3 June] and Paris [8 to 10 June] legs of the World Series, where they will be the non-core team invitational side.

It means a huge opportunity to play against the very best in the world, with Ireland’s pool in London set to include the winning side from the Singapore [28 to 29 April] leg of the Series. There is no better place for Ireland to learn even more.

There are also a handful of Rugby Europe events for Ireland to negotiate in the coming months.

Beyond these shorter-term plans, Eddy and co. will be eyeing next season as another opportunity to make the leap onto the circuit, achieving a goal that has existed since new life was breathed into the programme over three years ago.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora is a big believer in the value of sevens, both as a standalone entity but also, crucially, as a development tool for the 15s game.

The sevens programme can point to players like Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Alex Wootton, Tom Daly, Dan Goggin, Nick Timoney and Barry Daly as good examples of that in recent times.

Certainly, members of the current squad and most of the graduates above speak highly of the benefits of playing sevens, particularly for their defensive skills – one-on-one tackles in crucial positions being so frequent.

Jimmy O'Brien Jimmy O'Brien was excellent in Hong Kong. Source: Jayne Russell/INPHO

Leinster academy centre Jimmy O’Brien was excellent for Ireland in Hong Kong and it seems likely that he will soon be re-integrated into his province’s planning, having shown his skills in sevens.

A player like O’Brien will return to Leinster having experienced high-pressure scenarios in sevens, as well as getting a feel for regular international travel, the demands of maintaining motivation and energy within tournaments, and much more.

The same can be said for his fellow Leinster academy men Hugo Keenan, Ian Fitzpatrick, Will Connors and Terry Kennedy, as well as Munster centre Shane Daly – another who has performed very well for the sevens team this season.

These players have essentially been sevens players for 2017/18, with their involvement as core members of the Ireland Sevens squad being prioritised as they chased qualification onto the Series.

There are drawbacks, of course, with their provinces having less access to the players during this season, but then sevens can offer them intense competition rather than just waiting patiently for senior game time in the academy.

It can be argued, too, that the players’ Ulster Bank League sides are being weakened by them missing games from time to time.

On the other side of that coin, club players such as Lansdowne’s John O’Donnell, Blackrock man Roche, Trinity’s Bryan Mollen, UCD’s Billy Dardis and Harry McNulty and Enniskillen flyer Robert Baloucoune have been playing for their country.

Their clubs surely take pride in that fact and the players relish the chance to pull on the green jersey – sevens providing another avenue for those who aren’t in the provincial system.

Development of 15s players, a route for club men to represent Ireland in international competition – these alone are fine reasons for the men’s sevens programme to exist.

Harry McNulty celebrates scoring a try Harry McNulty has been with the relaunched Ireland sevens squad since their first tournament in Bosnia in 2015. Source: Jayne Russell/INPHO

Do Irish rugby fans really care about sevens, though?

The evidence of last weekend suggests there is a core of interested Irish supporters engaging with the seven-player code, even as it operates largely under the radar, but for now, it’s fair to say that sevens rugby has not ignited widespread interest.

The feeling is that a major achievement like getting onto the Series or causing a few shocks at a World Cup is required to ensure that happens.

Major progress has been made for Ireland to be looking forward to the World Cup and coming close to Series qualification, but there is plenty of scope for growth ahead.

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Murray Kinsella

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