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'The idea is to give people in areas that aren't represented in rugby an opportunity'

John O’Donnell and the Ireland Men’s Sevens team have a huge weekend ahead in Hong Kong.

BY THE END of this weekend, John O’Donnell and the Ireland Men’s Sevens team hope to have secured a place on the World Rugby Sevens Series for next season.

It would be a major milestone achievement for a programme that was only relaunched in 2015 and it would help push sevens rugby firmly into the rugby public’s consciousness in Ireland.

O’Donnell and his team-mates are in Hong Kong for the Qualifier tournament, which kicks off early tomorrow morning and, all going to plan, will conclude with a final on Sunday morning at 9.30am Irish time, the winner of which is promoted onto the Series.

John O'Donnell celebrates O'Donnell celebrates Ireland's bronze medal at the London Sevens last year. Andrew Fosker / INPHO Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

Plans can change in the blink of an eye in sevens, of course, so this weekend could bring heartbreak for Ireland – as it did this time last year when they were agonisingly beaten by Japan in the semi-finals and missed their opportunity.

Regardless of what happens over the course of the weekend, O’Donnell has a big day back in Ireland next Tuesday, as a new pilot study involving sevens rugby in areas of Dublin that aren’t traditionally associated with rugby kicks-off.

O’Donnell, a native of Wigan who made his Ireland Sevens debut in 2016 and has been largely ever-present since, has always had a passion for community work, making him the ideal man to lead the IRFU’s ‘Going for Gold 7s’ initiative in Ballymun, Finglas, Rialto and Inchicore.

O’Donnell has signed up team-mates Jordan Conroy, Hugo Keenan, Mark Roche, Hugo Lennox and Harry McNulty to coach for the coming six weeks of the programme.

“It’s six weeks of sevens rugby intertwined with work by Jigsaw, which is the national centre for youth mental health,” explains O’Donnell in his Wigan lilt.

“They’re going to run workshops raising awareness on some of the issues facing young people at the minute, stuff like healthy relationships, healthy lifestyle, mental health awareness, teamwork and leadership.”

On the rugby side, O’Donnell and his fellow coaches will work with 10 players in each of the four centres over the next six weeks, and there is excitement at providing opportunity in rugby for young people who might not have had it otherwise.

“The idea is to give people in areas that aren’t really represented in rugby at all the opportunity to play,” says O’Donnell, who was named Premiership Community Player of the Season in 2016 during his time with Sale Sharks.

“The lads are all 14, 15, 16 and we’ve been out to them the past couple of weeks just to get to know them. They’re an outstanding bunch of lads.

John O'Donnell O'Donnell is leading the 'Going for Gold 7s' initiative. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“If you went into those areas, they’d probably agree that rugby has this sort of persona about it that it’s for us, not you, or something along those lines.

“It would be fantastic to see people from those areas that we’re targeting staying in rugby and I think it’s achievable.”

O’Donnell is of the mind that sevens is the ideal way to introduce and develop new rugby players, with the ‘Going for Gold’ name linked to sevens now being an Olympic sport.

Ireland will have a chance to qualify for Tokyo 2020 at a European qualification tournament in France in July, with a final repechage competition taking place in 2020 if they fail this summer.

O’Donnell has invested his life into the Ireland Sevens programme since making his debut at a Rugby Europe competition in Prague in 2016.

Wigan is a rugby league stronghold and O’Donnell was brought up in the 13-man code, playing for St Patrick’s – Owen Farrell’s amateur club – and advancing into the Wigan Warriors academy and reserve set-up.

O’Donnell then hopped into rugby union with National League 2 side Sale FC, whose director of rugby was also an academy coach with Premiership outfit Sale Sharks.

O’Donnell modestly says “I blagged my way in” to a year-long contract with the Sharks, from where he earned another season and regularly played for the club’s A team, without breaking into the senior side.

Throughout his youth, O’Donnell loved the Irishness of his family and the strong sense of Irishness in Wigan. His grandparents hail from Trim in County Meath and his parents, William and Patricia – “or Billy and Patsy” – have always taken pride in their heritage.

“I was brought up with my mum and dad being Irish. The O’Donnell name comes from my dad’s family and my mum is a Brennan. They’ve been brought up as Irish and my grandparents are Irish, so it’s always been part of my life.

John O'Donnell scores a try O'Donnell scores a try against the US in London last year. Andrew Fosker / INPHO Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

“My Dad is immensely proud of me playing for Ireland. Any time I’m back home in the pub or whatever and there are lads from about the place, they’d be bored sick of my dad talking about me and my rugby!”

So, after two seasons of ”not getting where I wanted to be” with Sale and having played for several invitational sevens teams during off-seasons, O’Donnell’s eyes lit up when he saw that the Ireland Sevens side was up and running again.

“I knew I wouldn’t be sticking around at Sale at the end of that season and I saw a bit of hype around the Ireland 7s qualifying for the [2016 Olympics] repechage,” he explains.

“I was at a point where I thought, ‘This might be an opportunity to go and see the world and play some decent rugby.’”

O’Donnell searched the IRFU’s website and saw a video of sevens coach Stan McDowell, who won the Heineken Cup with Ulster in 1999, then went onto LinkedIn and sent McDowell a message with some of his playing clips.

He was invited to a training camp in Wales and kept getting invites thereafter.

“It all started with that LinkedIn message to Stan! I’ve still got it on my phone.”

O’Donnell took the leap of moving to Ireland, a big one given that playing sevens is not lucratively remunerated, and was thankful for the generosity of team-mates like Harry McNulty and Mark Roche for helping him to settle in.

“It was tough at first,” says O’Donnell, who joined up with club side Lansdowne FC. “With rent in Dublin, it’s not a market where a 22-year-old can come in and have a bit of bargaining power.

“I could have stayed in Wigan and got a decent job. I have mates back home who have mortgages now and when I came over here, I was trying to scrimp and save, trying to get by.”

O’Donnell coached at DIT and Sandford Park in his early days in Ireland, while he is now on a sevens contract and leading the ‘Going for Gold 7s’ initiative.

John O’Donnell O'Donnell is a Lansdowne FC man. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

On top of that, he’s studying strength and conditioning at the University of Central Lancaster, meaning he flies to Liverpool on Wednesday evenings, has a full day of lectures on Thursdays, returns to Dublin late that night and reports for training on Friday mornings.

O’Donnell is thankful the IRFU are happy to facilitate it, while he stresses the role his parents have played in supporting him, saying they “gave me a massive push to carry on doing it” and highlighting that their work ethic has rubbed off on him.

“If you were to ask someone about me, the first thing I’d want them to say is that I’m hard-working. That comes directly from my dad.

“He’s a plant-fitter, plant machinery like JCBs, he’d fit them. From a young age, I’d be out in the garages seeing him work and he’s a grafter.”

This weekend, it’s time for O’Donnell to graft again as Ireland bid for a place on the Series.

He feels they are perfectly-prepared, having had major achievements last season, won the Dubai 7s Invitational in December and come through training camps in Spain, Italy and South Africa in recent months. 

Memories of Hong Kong last year linger, but O’Donnell believes Ireland have done the work required to get a better outcome this time around.

“Last year was genuinely the lowest point in sport that I’ve ever been involved in because it felt like it was going so well up until that semi-final. Then, in a matter of 14 minutes, it went the other way around. It shook me really.

“It’s a cliché that sometimes it comes down to the bounce of a ball. I personally don’t believe that. If you go in as prepared as you should, you should come out the right side of it.”

Ireland fixtures at Hong Kong Qualifier:
[Streamed on World Rugby YouTube and Facebook]

Friday 5 April:

Ireland v Jamaica — 12.38pm (local time)/5.38am (Irish time)
Ireland v Uruguay — 3.43pm (local time)/8.43am (Irish time)

Saturday 6 April:

Ireland v Russia — 10.08am (local time)/3.08am (Irish time)

Sunday 7 April:

Semi-finals and final

Ireland squad:

Billy Dardis (Terenure RFC)
Jordan Conroy (Buccaneers RFC)
Ian Fitzpatrick (Lansdowne FC)
Foster Horan (Lansdowne FC)
Hugo Keenan (UCD RFC/Leinster)
Terry Kennedy (St. Mary’s College RFC)
Adam Leavy (Lansdowne FC)
Mick McGrath (Clontarf FC)
Harry McNulty (UCD RFC)
Bryan Mollen (Blackrock College RFC)
John O’Donnell (Lansdowne FC)
Greg O’Shea (Shannon RFC)
Mark Roche (Blackrock College RFC)

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