Yu Chun Christopher Wong/INPHO Mark Roche has seen it all with the Ireland 7s.

'It was very hard to see where I'd make it professionally in the 15s game'

Mark Roche has gone from Bosnia in 2015 to a bronze medal at last weekend’s World Cup 7s.

MARK ROCHE HAS been there since the very start. He’s one of the so-called ‘Originals.’

He remembers the lumpy pitch alongside a river in the city of Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina back in June 2015. There were flies everywhere. The dated astroturf warm-up pitch left everyone’s feet in ribbons.

The Ireland 7s team hammered everyone that weekend, racking up 47 tries in six games against minnows like Belarus and Turkey. Such was their dominance, the teams they beat started to support them. They were even singing ‘Ireland’s Call’ as Roche and co. stormed to the European Division C title.

Those memories are a far cry from winning bronze at the World Cup 7s in Cape Town last weekend and an appearance on the Late Late Show last night. The medal matters most but the air time on RTÉ perhaps says as much about this Ireland team’s rise.

“When I started, I never thought we would get where we have,” says 29-year-old Roche.

“Back in Bosnia, it was just about enjoying getting to play for Ireland. I had no idea it was going to end up with a bronze medal at a World Cup.”

In the aftermath of beating Australia in the bronze match, Ireland lingered in the changing room for a long time. No one wanted to leave, no one wanted the feeling to dissipate.

Roche and Harry McNulty, his fellow Original, shared a laugh about some of the early times. They remembered a trip to Moscow in 2017 when they stayed in a grey, dark, miserable place and lived on protein bars for the weekend. These days, they jet around the world to places like LA, Vancouver, and Singapore on the World 7s Series.

“We went from being in the shit to everything being put on a plate for you,” says Roche.

He was at the very first trial when the IRFU announced it was relaunching the men’s 7s programme. Before all that, he had been a promising centre with Blackrock College and Leinster’s age-grade teams.

When he was let go by Leinster’s sub-academy, he rang Nigel Carolan and asked for a trial with the Connacht U20s. His inter-pro performances saw Roche go on to play for the Ireland U20s in 2013.

mark-roche TrySportImages / Travis Prior/INPHO Roche has had ups and downs in 7s rugby. TrySportImages / Travis Prior/INPHO / Travis Prior/INPHO

But there was no academy offer from the provinces and while he looked at the possibility of moving to the English Championship, Lansdowne convinced Roche that the AIL was the right home for him. He scored a try in the final as they won the league in 2015.

“It was very hard to see where I’d be going to make it professionally in the 15s game. It was looking like I would be playing with Lansdowne for my career.”

Up popped the 7s programme and the rest is history. There has been heartbreak along the way but Ireland thundered up through the European ranks and qualified onto the World Series in 2019. They have improved each season since and the only side they haven’t beaten yet is New Zealand.

Roche has even been able to wear the green jersey alongside his younger brother, Tom, who broke into the wider squad this season.

“We came second in Toulouse this year and I just said to him, ‘You are so f*cking lucky! Your third tournament and you win a medal. I’ve been waiting since 2018 to get a medal.’ That was outrageous but it was special to play with him.”

Not that this journey has been easy. Playing professional 7s is not a lucrative career. Far from it. Some Irish players have been on basic salaries of €18,000. Others have been earning less than that.

With Ireland growing as a force, the hope is that the pay will rise very soon, but no one has been in this for the money. Indeed, some 7s players have retired simply because they needed to get on with careers outside rugby.

Roche lives with his fiancée, Jennapher Gleeson, and son Josh, so there have been occasions when he has had to seriously consider whether 7s was right for him.

“It has been hard at times. I’m slightly in a different position to others because I have Jen and Josh, none of the other lads have a kid, some of them have been living at home. We have a mortgage so there’s that worry of money and how sustainable it would be.

“Look, I knew the contracts weren’t great but I just couldn’t give up 7s because I knew there was more. I love 7s. I want to play as much as I can until I can’t anymore.

“I think if you finish early, you might look back and regret it.”

Roche also works part-time as a personal trainer at Origin Fitness in Dublin, while he coaches with Lansdowne – something he wants to pursue even more when he finishes playing.

ireland-players-celebrate-with-former-teammate-greg-oshea Travis Prior / INPHO Ireland celebrate their bronze in Cape Town. Travis Prior / INPHO / INPHO

And moments like last weekend in South Africa make the sacrifices worthwhile. The straight knock-out nature of the World Cup meant Ireland’s opener against minnows Portugal was a nervy affair but then they powered past England.

It was in the quarter-finals that they really rocked the tournament by dominating hosts South Africa in a victory that surprised everyone except the Irish players themselves.

“Not in an arrogant way, but we knew we were going to win,” says Roche, who missed the 2018 World Cup due to a broken leg.

“I could feel there was something special in the group. It’s hard to fully put it into words but we could all feel it.”

There was disappointment in a narrow defeat to New Zealand in the semi-finals but a medal was still on the line in their last outing against the Aussies, so there was no time for sulking. 

Roche says they were motivated to send Terry Kennedy off in style, with the talismanic St Mary’s man now heading away to Australia for a year-long sabbatical from the 7s squad.

It was an edgy clash as Ireland twice went behind but, typically, Kennedy drew them level with a classy kick-and-chase score. He then sidefooted a delightful kick pass out to Roche in the build-up to McNulty’s winning try. 

With a recent error in a similar situation fresh in his mind, Roche stayed relaxed to gather the ball up off the ground, got outside an Aussie defender and hit McNulty to finish. Kennedy was fittingly the man to kick the ball out for the final whistle. The celebrations were wild.

“It felt really emotional as well,” says Roche. “It was one of the greatest feelings. A bronze medal in a World Cup… I know 7s is different with the three medals but to be that first Irish team to do it, it’s insane. We just screamed the stadium down.”

Already, Roche is looking forward. The new World 7s Series season starts in Hong Kong in November and Ireland will fancy taking plenty more scalps on the circuit. The usual 7s powers know there is a new contender now.

mark-roche Ryan Byrne / INPHO Roche hasn't been able to play for Lansdowne since 2020 but loves AIL rugby. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

And looming large in the background is the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Roche was part of the Ireland squad that made history by qualifying for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, which were delayed by a year due to Covid-19.

Roche has the Olympic rings tattooed on his forearm, underling his pride at being an Olympian. But the pandemic meant it was a bittersweet experience, everyone constantly worried that a positive Covid test would see them missing out on competing. The uneasiness was relentless and Ireland had a disappointing tournament as they finished 10th. It left Roche longing for more.

He remembers clapping Irish rowers Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy back into the athletes’ village after they had won gold. Roche noticed the sheer size and thickness of the medals around their neck. He was struck by the realisation that the Ireland 7s team hadn’t gone to Tokyo with the intention of winning.

“We didn’t really know what we wanted,” says Roche. “We had never been there. But now lads like Harry, Terry, Jordan [Conroy], Billy [Dardis], all the lads who have been to the Olympics, we know what we want out of the next Olympics.

“It has made everyone hungry to get to Paris. I want to do Paris because I want that full experience. I want to be up on the podium with a medal around my neck.

“We don’t want to just be at the Olympics, we want to win it. We know we can.”

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