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Ireland's achievements at London 7s are the latest step in a laudable rise

The journey began back in 2015 but has now moved onto a new level.

YOU KNOW IRELAND’S achievements in London have made a global impact when Wallabies coach Michael Cheika greets a pair of visiting journalists in Brisbane by asking how the Irish have suddenly become so good at sevens.

At the start of a week in which Joe Schmidt’s Ireland will face the Wallabies on Australian soil, it is the men’s sevens team who have deservedly been the talk of the town, at home and abroad.

Ireland celebrate a third place finish after beating England Ireland celebrate in London. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Beating England with a sizzling late Jordan Conroy try and an ice-cold Mark Roche conversion in the bronze medal final meant a stunning overall performance for Ireland in what was their first appearance on the World Rugby Sevens Series since 2004.

Only in London as an invitational side, the widespread expectation was that Ireland would gain some valuable experience playing against series regulars like Australia and Wales.

But Anthony Eddy’s side continued their laudable rise of recent years by overcoming the Welsh and Spain in their pool before pulling off a superb shock win over the US – who won the Las Vegas leg this season – in the quarter-finals.

Defeat to eventual winners Fiji followed and though there was an obvious gulf in quality, the Fijians have been a class above everyone in winning five of the last six legs of the circuit.

Up against England – overall runners-up in last season’s series – in the bronze final, the presumption was that Ireland would end their adventure with another defeat but it proved to be another absorbing upset.

Having finally grabbed the widespread attention they deserve, it might seem like this Irish effort has come from nowhere.

Of course, these particular achievements in London were special but they were built on years of hard work since the IRFU relaunched the men’s sevens programme in 2015.

The journey started at the very bottom of European sevens rugby, with Ireland facing opponents like San Marino and Lichenstein, and the progress has been relatively painstaking simply by the design of the competition structures.

Matthew D'Arcy, Tom Daly and Cian Aherne Matthew D'Arcy, Tom Daly and Cian Aherne in 2015 as the IRFU announced its men's sevens structures. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Back in April, Ireland suffered heartbreak in the semi-finals of the Hong Kong Qualifier competition, where outright success would have earned them status as a core team on the top-tier sevens circuit for next season.

The process of returning to that same Hong Kong Qualifier in 2019 and having another shot at qualifying onto the series has already begun, with Ireland emphatically winning the Moscow 7s to launch their bid in style.

With IRFU performance director David Nucifora being a major fan of sevens as a means to developing 15s players but also as a standalone sport, the Irish union has been keen to push the growth of men’s sevens after years of being dormant.

Memories of the IRFU’s dismissive attitude towards sevens before the Nucifora era remain fresh, days when campaigners such as former Leinster academy flyer Cian Aherne battled to impress upon the union the possible value of the seven-player code.

Aherne ended up being part of Ireland’s journey when Nucifora took action and brought Eddy in as director of women’s and sevens rugby late in 2014.

There have been many others to play important roles along the way as Ireland have moved up through the ranks of the sevens game, the likes of Rory O’Loughlin, Adam Byrne, Alex Wootton and Barry Daly benefitting before their 15s careers truly took off.

The Ireland 7s squad that played in London featured four young men who are attached to Leinster’s academy in Jimmy O’Brien, Ian Fitzpatrick, Terry Kennedy and Hugo Keenan.

Ireland celebrate a third place finish after beating England Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

They are likely to have high hopes of advancing into Leinster’s senior 15s side in the near future and it looks like these experiences with the sevens team will be of huge value, with the intelligent O’Brien having been a particularly impressive presence for Eddy’s side.

But this men’s sevens journey has been about far more than the youngsters still on the professional 15s pathway.

The likes of Aherne have been vital too, those players who aren’t still in the thoughts of the provinces.

One of the most impressive performers in the entire London 7s was UCD’s Harry McNulty, a 25-year-old who left Munster’s academy in 2014 and very easily could have slipped away from elite rugby.

Instead, the imposing forward has been with the Ireland sevens since the very beginning in 2015.

Blackrock RFC’s Roche, Ireland’s scrum-half, was there at the start three years ago too and has developed into a superb sevens player. He tasted the agony of the sport in Hong Kong in April but showed his class with his drop-kick and much more in London.

24-year-old Conroy, the Buccaneers’ pace merchant, scored eight tries in London and made it into the official Dream Team alongside Roche.

Also in the 13-man London squad were captain Billy Dardis – formerly of the Leinster academy - Enniskillen’s Robert Baloucoune, Lansdowne’s Foster Horan, Trinity’s Bryan Mollen, Lansdowne’s John O’Donnell and former Munster academy wing Greg O’Shea.

Jordan Conroy runs in the first try Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

All of these players have had the thrill of representing Ireland despite not being part of the provincial set-ups, showing the fantastic new avenue that men’s sevens has opened up in recent years.

Last weekend’s remarkable performance may be the start of the sevens journey for some new fans – which is a fantastic aspect of the success – but for the players who have been and are still involved, it’s another step along the road to the ultimate goal of core status on the series.

Next weekend is another opportunity, when Ireland are the invitational side again for the final leg of the season’s series in Paris.

Expectations have now been set high but so too has confidence. With Ireland also set to compete in the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco from 20 to 22 June – their first World Cup appearance since 2009 – these are exciting times for men’s sevens.

Those old pipe dreams about a leg of the sevens series taking place in Dublin at some point in the future don’t seem so unrealistic now.

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Murray Kinsella

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