'It would change the whole Irish rugby pathway' - Men's 7s have World Series shot

The Ireland men’s sevens team can secure a place on the World Sevens Series in Hong Kong next month.

THEY’VE BEEN GOING under the radar for the large part, but Ireland’s men’s sevens team have been working ferociously hard since the programme was re-launched in 2015.

They list Ireland 15s-capped Rory O’Loughlin and Adam Byrne, Munster men Alex Wootton and Dan Goggin, Leinster backs Barry Daly and Tom Daly, and Ulster back row Nick Timoney among their graduates, but the current crop are the ones looking to make the biggest breakthrough of all for Irish men’s sevens rugby.

From the very depths of European sevens – initially playing against the likes of Lithuania, Lichenstein and San Marino – Ireland have slowly but surely ascended through the ranks.

Now, in the shape of next month’s qualifier in Hong Kong, they are just one tournament success away from securing a place on the 2018/19 World Rugby Sevens Series alongside the very best sides on the planet.

IMG_4417 Ireland have qualified for this year's World Cup. Source: Sam O'Byrne

The opportunity is a thrilling one as Ireland look set to compete with the likes of Japan, Chile, Hong Kong and Germany for trophy glory at the World Series qualifier over the weekend of 6 to 8 April, with the winner earning promotion into the big time.

“I’ve been excited about it for the last three years,” says IRFU director of women’s and seven rugby, Anthony Eddy, who coaches the team alongside Stan McDowell.

“The players have been our greatest asset and I heap enormous amounts of praise on the boys who have been part of it and moved on, but also the boys that are in the squad now and their capability.

“It’s a tough competition but we’re definitely capable of winning it. You’ve got to be so good for every single game in Hong Kong against good sevens-playing countries who have been there before. It’s our first shot and we’re in a good position to do it.

“If we do it, it will give the game of sevens an enormous boost in this country and also give the players an enormous opportunity for them to have another avenue to represent their country, and also develop more as rugby players.”

For rugby fans who regularly tune into the World Series on television and delight in the sensational drama and glamour of sevens, it may be difficult to imagine Ireland being involved, but it really is within touching distance.

Last summer’s excellent performance on the European Grand Prix Series secured Ireland’s position in next month’s qualifier, as well as a place at this year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens, which takes place in San Francisco in July.

The World Cup may seem like the bigger deal, but next month’s qualifier means everything to this squad, as Munster academy man Shane Daly – part of the squad since last season – explains.

“Hong Kong is just huge for us and it will change everything,” says 21-year-old Daly. “I wasn’t involved when this all started, but we were so far from this point back then.

Shane Daly Former Ireland U20s international Daly is part of the sevens set-up. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Credit to all the lads who have played on the way up, some have gone on to play international 15s from it, which is great to see. We’ve got to make the most it now.”

Daly is one of a number of exciting young academy players who have been involved with the sevens this season, including Leinster’s Terry Kennedy, Will Connors, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien and Ian Fitzpatrick, and Connacht’s Jordan Conroy – all of whom have been permanent core squad members this season.

Ireland’s group also includes players who are no longer part of the provincial system but who clearly still have so much to offer the sport.

Billy Dardis, the former Leinster and Ireland U20s back is a prime example, having assumed the role of captain with the seven’s team.

“It’s something different,” says the 23-year-old. “When you’re in the Leinster academy, getting your first senior cap is everything to you and you do the same thing day-in, day-out for four years trying to get it.

“Whereas now it’s been a new thing to motivate me, a new thing to train towards.”

Shannon’s Greg O’Shea, Lansdowne men Bryan Mollen, Mark Roche and John O’Donnell, Enniskillen back Robert Baloucoune, and UCD’s Harry McNulty are all core squad members too.

Other club and academy players – including Alex McHenry, Adam Leavy, Sean Cribbin, Hugo Lennox, Fionn Carr and Foster Horan – have come in and out at different points of this campaign and previous ones.

Dardis believes that Irish success in Hong Kong next month could genuinely alter the rugby landscape in this country.

“It would change the whole Irish rugby pathway,” says the UCD health and performance science student. “If you look bigger picture, lads coming out of school could maybe look at sevens as a different pathway to playing for Ireland.

“For a 22 or 23-year-old who is stuck in a rut and not getting games for their province, they can go and play sevens and change their game and come back. It’s kind of like in New Zealand, I suppose – a different pathway.”

Billy D Ireland captain Billy Dardis. Source: Silicon Valley 7s

Daly is in his second year with the Munster academy but is essentially a full-time sevens player this season, basing himself in Dublin for their heavy training weeks and doing a work placement with Ernst & Young as part of his degree in Finance through UCC.

So even though Daly is a Munster player, he is very rarely in Limerick, returning only for a handful of British & Irish Cup games in between sevens competitions.

“Everyone bought into it more so this year because of what’s at stake this year,” says Eddy when asked about the support the provinces are giving the sevens programme.

“The four provincial academies have been really supportive of some of these players being targeted or prioritised around the sevens programme.

“One, for the benefit of the sevens programme and, two, for the benefit of the player.

“It was seen as this being a really good opportunity for the player to develop and have exposure to this level before they go back into academy programmes or senior 15 programmes.”

While Daly’s prime goal in his career at the moment is helping Ireland to qualify for the World Series, he feels this exposure to sevens is making him a better 15s player too.

“I find that sevens improves your 15s game and especially in defence, because when you get on the pitch in 15s you feel so much more secure with so many people either side of you.

“Defensively in sevens, it’s huge because you’re in a situation in sevens every time where if you were in that same situation in 15s, it would be a disaster. You have five or 10 metres either side of you and you never get that in 15s.

“Your one-on-one tackling is huge and it’s a shock to the system when you first start playing, you feel like you have nobody around you, but you adapt quickly.”

Dardis has seen the benefits of playing sevens when it comes to 15s too, pointing out how several graduates of the Ireland sevens programme have gone on to bigger things with Leinster, Munster and Ireland.

Anthony Eddy Anthony Eddie, the IRFU's director of women's and sevens rugby. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They would say it just gave them a bit of confidence,” says Dardis. “For someone like Adam [Byrne], he was stuck in a rut for a while and after that, he just opened up and showed what he can do.

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“The lads here at the moment are playing sevens at a much higher level than was the case before. Guys like Jimmy O’Brien and Hugo Keenan are playing brilliantly in sevens and they could do damage in a Pro14 game, in my eyes. It’s making them fitter, making them better footballers.”

There have been severe lessons for Ireland on their journey towards the World Series qualifier, particularly this season.

They started it by playing at the Oktoberfest 7s, when they came up against a Fiji team that included around 70% of their World Series players, as well as Australia’s full side.

“The intensity was a different level,” says Dardis. ”Lads could only last eight or nine minutes and then came off the pitch in bits,” although Dardis and Ireland felt they were close to a couple of big wins.

The Silicon Valley 7s in California – where Ireland won the Bowl – followed in September, before the Dubai 7s International Invitational  – a fifth-placed finish – in early December, while they competed in two legs of the Sudamérica 7s Series in Uruguay and Chile in January.

Eddy and McDowell’s men have also been doing training weekends with other nations regularly, particularly with World Series side Wales.

England were over in Dublin on Monday and Tuesday for a competitive camp with Ireland, who more than held their own over the course of six games across the two days.

Eddy says the addition of Allan Temple-Jones, the head of athletic performance, to the sevens programme last year has been important in helping Ireland to develop their ability to train and play at the required intensity.

Having worked with the highly-successful South African Sevens programme for more than a decade before, Temple-Jones has valuable first-hand experience.

Source: Irish Rugby TV/YouTube

“The amount of high-speed running, it’s like three times more high-speed running in a sevens training session than you would do in a 15s session,” says Daly of the demands.

“You don’t really realise when you’re doing it but everything is full-on in sevens. In 15s, especially me as a wide player, you could be standing, walking around, walking around, and then you go when you get the ball. With sevens, you don’t have that break between plays – you always have to be somewhere.”

Ireland have learned harsh lessons around the cost of just a single error this season too, each one of them being magnified with fewer players on the pitch and less time to make amends.

With the hard work largely done now, though, the opportunity in three weekends’ time is tantalising.

“It’s do-or-die,” says Dardis. “If we go well in Hong Kong, that’s it – sevens is a professional thing in Ireland. I have no doubt that we can push the sevens to the level Irish 15s is at.

“It would be pretty cool to get onto the circuit. It could be a new pathway for younger players but there are 20 players here right now, and this is their dream so they won’t let it go easily.”

Thoughts of a possible World Series leg in Dublin in the future are certainly appealing and with Ireland having made impressive and steady progress in the men’s sevens game since 2015, they must now seize their opportunity.

“It could all come down to the bounce of one ball or one tackle,” says Dardis. “That’s exciting.”

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