Ireland's 7s programme taking shape as Rio Olympics remains 'big ambition'

Anthony Eddy, the IRFU’s Director of Sevens Rugby, has a busy few months ahead.

Felix Jones makes a crunching hit for Ireland at the 2009 Sevens World Cup.
Felix Jones makes a crunching hit for Ireland at the 2009 Sevens World Cup.
Image: Paul Seiser/INPHO

THIS IS A huge month for Ireland’s 15-a-side teams, as Joe Schmidt’s senior side, Tom Tierney’s women and Nigel Carolan’s U20s all seek Six Nations success, but these are crucial weeks for the IRFU’s new men’s sevens programme too.

Ireland will select their panel of sevens players for 2015 in the next fortnight or so, looking ahead to this summer’s European Championships and with qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics still in mind.

It was confirmed last October that Ireland would re-launch a senior sevens set-up after a five-year absence from the code. In December, Australian Anthony Eddy came on board as Director of Sevens Rugby, while also assuming the same role in women’s rugby.

The next step involved Talent Identification Days [TIDs] in each of the four provinces in January, where over 400 club players [including a handful of athletes from other sports] were tested on their physical prowess.

Jump forward to this week and 45 players picked from those TIDs are preparing for the next set of trials in Lansdowne FC on Saturday, where they will be spilt into four teams to play each other once, allowing Eddy and his fellow coaches to assess their sevens skills.

The testing data was pretty good, so the next stage is to put them in a game scenario and see what the skill level is and everything else,” explains Eddy. “But the testing data was good, there are some great athletes running around.”

A handful of Gaelic footballers have made it into the selection of 45 players, “guys that just with their testing data are worth having a look at,” says Eddy.

“Some of the other guys have been in the Ireland Clubs team, others have been in and out of academy programmes, others have played representative rugby at 20s stage and then gone back to clubland, so there’s some quality players.”

A week later, Eddy will have invited around 20 of those men back for the next assessment, where a further 10 players picked from an Exiles testing day in Birmingham earlier this month will be introduced, as well as “20 to 30 players” from the Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht academies.

Anthony Eddy Check out The42 this weekend for more on Anthony Eddy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So we’ll end up with five teams to play again in a selection process on 21 March,” says Eddy. “We’ll then pick a group of probably 30 players to represent Ireland in the sevens programme for 2015.”

The academy players will be a mixture from year one, year two and year three of the developmental programmes, although it’s unlikely that too many tighthead props will be involved.

They’re a mix, but all players who have the potential to play international sevens,” says Eddy. “It’s not a game that lends itself terribly well to tight five players, but some of the back rowers and your backs with speed are of interest.”

So what happens when Ireland have their 30 or so players selected? What next for Ireland’s first men’s sevens squad since 2009?

Four weekend training camps over the coming months will prepare the Ireland squad for two competitions this summer, namely the European Championships and the GB Sevens.

The latter competition takes place across three legs, the first in Edinburgh on 30 May, then onto Coventry on 6 June, before ending in Colwyn Bay on 13 June.

The Edinburgh leg serves as a warm-up for the European competition, as does the third, but the second leg clashes with the Euros, meaning “there’s a need to run two teams.”

Ireland must start on the very bottom rung of the European Championships by competing in Division C, which takes place in the city of Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 6/7 June.

Division C of European Championships:

Bosnia, Turkey, Estonia, Serbia, Belarus, Austria, Iceland, Montenegro, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Ireland, Malta

Pool A:

Bosnia, Austria, Iceland, Malta

Pool B:

Turkey, Belarus, Montenegro, Ireland

Pool C:

Estonia, Serbia, Liechtenstein, San Marino

Ireland’s pool pits them against Turkey, Belarus and Montenegro, and they need to finish in the top four of the 12-team competition to advance into Division B in Zagreb, Croatia on 20/21 June.

The highest-ranked team in Division B then qualifies into the European Olympic Repêchage Tournament on 25/26 July [venue to be announced], the winner of which secures a place in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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Brian Tuohy on the attack James Coughlan playing sevens for Ireland in 2009. Source: Paul Seiser/INPHO

“It’s a big ambition,” admits Eddy when asked if looking towards Rio is realistic.

Negotiating their way through Divisions C and B clearly can’t be taken for granted, but as things stand Ireland would also have to beat sevens heavyweights England in the Repêchage if they reach that stage.

Division B of European Championships:

Croatia, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Norway, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Slovakia, Greece, top four teams from Division B

The English are currently outside the top four of the World Sevens Series [those four sides go directly into the Olympics], trailing Australia by three points. Not having to face England in the Repêchage would obviously be a major boost.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the World Series yet,” says Eddy. “We’ll be battling against either England or France if we make it there, plus Russia, Spain, Portugal, all the other teams that have sevens programmes and play in the World Series.”

Getting the better of the likes of Turkey, Estonia, Iceland and Malta in Division C is one thing, but beating experienced and proven sevens outfits in an Olympic qualifying tournament is on another level.

We can but dream the Olympic dream. Ireland’s men’s sevens programme is off the ground and picking up speed.

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Murray Kinsella

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