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'You might have young players suddenly see an opportunity to become an Olympian'

Anthony Eddy and his Ireland squad have a huge opportunity this weekend in UCD.

A MOMENTOUS WEEKEND lies ahead for sevens rugby in Ireland.

Across Saturday and Sunday, UCD plays host to the Olympic Qualifying tournament as Ireland’s women’s side go up against 15 other nations for the final spot at the Rio Games.

The opportunity is clear.

Lucy Mulhall applauds the fans Lucy Mulhall is captain of the Ireland side. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Qualify into the Olympics and sevens rugby can move into an utterly new level of public awareness and interest. Many Irish people who have never even engaged with 15s rugby would be exposed to the seven-player code, such an entertaining and alluring game.

Of course, captain Lucy Mulhall and her squad will be motivated by the more immediate reward of playing in the Olympics in August, but there is genuine scope for a legacy if they can beat the likes of Russia and Spain this weekend.

Anthony Eddy is the IRFU’s director of sevens and women’s rugby, and the Australian understands the chance this weekend.

Ireland’s men’s sevens team came within three wins of Olympic qualification last weekend in Monaco, but suffered a quarter-final defeat to eventual Rio qualifiers Spain.

That dream is dead but the women have their shot at a notable achievement.

I think it would fantastic,” says Anthony. “A lot of people would stand up and take recognition of what the game is. It would be a great opportunity to recruit players from outside of the traditional sector to come and play the game.

“You might have young players that have played different sports that suddenly see an opportunity to become an Olympian, as well as representing their country.”

Eddy believes that progress in Irish sevens has been made in recent times. The men’s programme was only re-launched in 2015 after years of the IRFU insisting it was not a strong use of resources.

A win over Samoa last weekend in Monaco was a major achievement and there have been two pieces of silverware so far as they look to rise towards eventual qualification for the World Sevens Series.

Anthony Eddy Eddy joined the IRFU in 2014. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The women, meanwhile, returned to the Series this season, although they found the going tough and finished 12th out of 14 teams in the overall standings.

I think it has grown,” says Anthony of the IRFU’s sevens programmes. “The men did a fantastic job last weekend. We were bitterly disappointed to lose to the eventual winners but over the last 18 months, that’s been a part-time programme.

“Those players should be really proud with what they have achieved and I’m sure they are.

“The women’s programme, it’s a similar sort of thing – over the last 18 months we’ve managed to get on the World Series which is giving the game greater recognition around the country. Ideally, this weekend, we can get the result we’re looking for.”

Victory for Ireland this weekend would see them secure World Series status for next season, as well as that final Olympic spot.

Already, UCD’s Belgrove Residence accommodation and the nearby training pitches are busy with several of the competing teams for the Olympic Qualifier in town to prepare.

Ireland’s pool pits them against China, Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago – all which should be manageable fixtures for Eddy’s side. Realistically, failure to reach a semi-final at the very least would be surprising for Ireland in this tournament.

If the draw pans out as predicted, Ireland would face Russia at that point. Awaiting the victor in the final is likely to be Spain.

Both the Russians and the Spaniards finished well ahead of Ireland in the World Series this season.

Niamh Briggs after the game Ireland 15s captain Niamh Briggs is part of the squad this weekend. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“We haven’t beaten the Russians yet but we managed to beat Spain recently so that will give us a great deal of confidence,” says Eddy of the two sides expected to stand in Ireland’s way.

“Russia are a really good side. They’ve had a squad together for about four or five years and they’re competing on the World Series.

“They’ll be a tough team to beat but home advantage and the girls being extremely determined and focused on getting to Rio, I’m sure they’ll give them a good run.”

The Russian and Spanish sevens programmes have been in place for longer than Ireland’s and both Olympic qualification contenders will be leaning on their experience this weekend.

However, Eddy believes his squad have shown genuine growth over the course of a testing season.

I think their game understanding is probably their biggest improvement. The skillset continues to improve and will continue to improve as we develop the programme.

“But a lot of the girls, as you know, have come from other sports and are still learning the game. It’s a difficult place to learn it, when you’re competing on the world stage.

“They’ve had to develop quickly and they continue to learn the game and I think that’s been the biggest area of improvement from us.”

Whatever about new lessons, the pressure is now on to deliver on home soil.

Ireland Women’s Sevens squad:

  • Ashleigh Baxter – Belfast Harlequins / Ulster
  • Niamh Briggs – UL Bohemians / Munster
  • Nicole Cronin – Shannon / Munster
  • Aoife Doyle – Shannon / Munster
  • Louise Galvin – UL Bohemians / Munster
  • Kim Flood – Railway Union / Leinster
  • Stacey Flood – Railway Union / Leinster
  • Alison Miller – Portlaoise / Connacht
  • Lucy Mulhall – Rathdrum / Leinster – Captain
  • Amee Leigh Murphy-Crowe – Railway Union / Munster
  • Audrey O’Flynn – Talent ID Programme
  • Megan Williams – St.Mary’s College RFC

 Ireland fixtures:

Ireland v Trinidad and Tobago
UCD Bowl, Saturday 25 June, 12.43pm

Ireland v Portugal
UCD Bowl, Saturday 25 June, 3.40pm

Ireland v China
UCD Bowl, Saturday 25 June, 6.48pm

Play-offs
Sunday 26 June

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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