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Excellent season for Ireland shows that 7s is very much here to stay

Last weekend’s World Cup in San Fran saw the men’s and women’s teams deliver fine performances.

MOST IRISH WINS over New Zealand teams are firmly entrenched in the rugby folklore of Ireland, never to be forgotten.

There was Munster’s famous win over the All Blacks in 1978 at Thomond Park, the Ireland Women beat the Black Ferns at the 2014 World Cup in France, while the Ireland U20s made history with their win over the Kiwis in the summer of 2016.

Ireland’ team celebrate winning the Challenge Cup Ireland's men's sevens team finished 9th at last weekend's World Cup. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

And then there was Chicago in November 2016, when Joe Schmidt’s Ireland downed the All Blacks to end a 111-year wait for success at senior men’s 15s level.

But there was another Irish win over New Zealand back in 1973 that is lesser-known.

At the International Seven-a-side Tournament, held at Murrayfield in Edinburgh as part of the Scottish Rugby Union’s centenary celebrations, Ireland’s men’s sevens team beat New Zealand on a scoreline of 22-18.

The great Mike Gibson was captain that day – 7 April 1973 – with a formidable Irish squad also including Fergus Slattery, Pa Whelan, Terry Moore, Kevin Mays, Donal Canniffe, Seamus Dennison, Arthur McMaster and the lightning-quick Vincent Becker.

After pool wins over New Zealand, Scotland and Australia, Ireland were pipped in the final by an England side led by Fran Cotton.

It’s barely even a footnote in Irish rugby history now but that success in 1973, in what was the first international sevens tournament, could perhaps have been the start of a rich history in the seven-player code for Ireland.

Despite some notable achievements in the decades since – a team including Eric Elwood, Alain Rolland and Richard Wallace reached the semi-finals of the 1993 Rugby World Cup Sevens – that hasn’t exactly transpired for Irish rugby.

Ireland's Aisleigh Baxter and Louise Galvin at the end of the match Ireland's women's team were sixth overall in San Francisco. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

As recently as 2014, the IRFU didn’t even have a programme for men’s sevens rugby, before the appointment of Australian performance director David Nucifora led to the relaunch of a team that had not played since 2009.

The women’s sevens side had already been playing but with Anthony Eddy appointed as director of women’s and sevens rugby in December 2014, the entire programme was re-invigorated.

After several years of ignoring sevens, the IRFU engaged with the shortened code as they realised its value as a development tool for 15s and as a rapidly-growing sport in its own right.

With over 100,000 people attending last weekend’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, the global interest in sevens was underlined once again and both Ireland teams capped off an excellent season with strong performances.

The women’s team were missing the lethal Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe due to injury as they lost their last game, a late try seeing Spain squeeze past them, but a sixth-place finish is their best-ever result at a World Cup.

Ninth seeds for the tournament, Lucy Mulhall’s team stunned England with a 16-14 win in their opener, before a disappointing 45-0 defeat to eventual champions New Zealand. A hard-fought victory against Russia sent Ireland into the fifth-place play-off with Spain.

Though they finished on a losing note, this good World Cup showing backs up a World Series season in which the women’s team re-qualified as a core team for the 2018/19 series.

Among the most encouraging aspects of the squad’s development has been the emergence of Railway Union’s Eve Higgins, a 19-year-old who scored two tries at the World Cup, including the superb effort below against the Spanish.

Higgins

Click here if you cannot view the clip above

The IRFU has stressed that it views women’s rugby in Ireland as “one big women’s programme,” encompassing sevens and 15s, something that has caused tension at times.

The hope now, therefore, is that a player as exciting as Higgins can impress for the 15s national team too.

Just last September, Higgins was playing for the Ireland U18 Women’s sevens side and the latest crop at that level is showing rich potential too, with trophy success at both legs of the recent U18 Women’s Home Nations Sevens Series.

Meanwhile, the senior men’s team finished ninth at last weekend’s World Cup after a sublime win over Australia in their final game. It might not seem like a big deal, but Stan McDowell’s side were 16th seeds coming into the 24-team tournament and this represents a real success.

The new format of the World Cup meant every game was essentially a knock-out from the very beginning and after overcoming Chile, Ireland were well beaten by South Africa on a 45-7 scoreline to drop into the Challenge Cup.

That defeat to the Blitzboks was disappointing as Ireland’s restarts collapsed, they made uncharacteristic handling errors, and suffered due to a couple of missed tackles amidst the frenetic pace of the game.

But overall, their display in San Francisco underlined the major progress they have made in recent years, with wins over the Chileans, Kenya, Wales and Australia at AT&T Park.

Australia finished fourth in the World Sevens Series this season, and Kenya and Wales are also core teams on the circuit, while Ireland have not yet achieved that status.

They came close in Hong Kong this year but will have to wait until 2019 to get another shot. Having started the process of qualifying into the Hong Kong Sevens impressively, Ireland will be among the favourites in that Qualifier next year.

Ireland’s Jimmy O'Brien scores the winning try Jimmy O'Brien has impressed for Ireland. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Their squad – made up of a handful of academy players and club rugby men – has bonded superbly this season and the fact that many of them have headed on holiday together this week underlines that fact.

Former provincial academy players like captain Billy Dardis and tough forward Harry McNulty are now key men in the sevens set-up, while ex-Connacht academy flyer Jordan Conroy is quickly making a name for himself as a rapid finisher.

Leinster academy centre Jimmy O’Brien has been brilliant for Ireland this season and will swiftly return to his province for pre-season along with Hugo Keenan [a wing in 15s], who has also impressed in sevens as he has embraced a playmaking role.

Munster centre Shane Daly is highly-rated by his provincial head coach, Johann van Graan, and also looks to have benefited greatly from his exposure to international competition with the sevens team this season.

Given that level of player development, as well as the remarkable achievement of a third-place finish as an invitational team at the London Sevens in June, and now an excellent World Cup, this has been a special season for Ireland’s men’s team.

They return to competitive action in September in Poland for the fourth and final leg of the Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix Series, which they lead and will allow them back into the Hong Kong Qualifier.

The women’s World Series will kick-off again in October, with the first leg set for Glendale in the US.

While another win over New Zealand might not be just around the corner, there is no doubting that Irish sevens has moved onto a new level this season and that the seven-player code is very much here to stay.

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Murray Kinsella

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