Terry Kennedy has been with the Ireland Sevens for six years. Manuel Blondeau/INPHO
Next stop Tokyo

'The Olympics, you win a couple of matches and who knows what can happen?'

Terry Kennedy is aiming big this summer after helping the Ireland Sevens qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

LAST SUNDAY EVENING, as the Ireland Men’s Sevens squad sipped on some of the sweetest beers they’d ever tasted, a long-running joke started to feel very, very real.

Now that they were going to be Olympians, when – and where – were they going to get the famous five rings tattoo?

“It will be done,” laughs Terry Kennedy, who, for the record, is probably going to play it safe and go for the bicep.

“We could be getting booked in for a big group booking when we get back from Tokyo.”

The logistics of the group inking was one of the many topics of discussion as the players basked in their achievement in Monaco last week, the 14-man squad securing qualification for Tokyo at the very last attempt by coming out on top of a 10-team repechage tournament, clinched with a stunning comeback win against France in the final.

They celebrated on the pitch, then they celebrated in the team tent outside the Stade Louis II stadium, and finally they celebrated back at the team hotel, the Ireland coaches making a much-appreciated run for beers to keep them going into the small hours. 

No fanfare, no family, no friends. Just the players who had shared the long, often difficult journey. 

“It was actually quite nice, just all of us enjoying the whole moment together,” Kennedy says. “The time flew by. We just keep turning to each other, like we can’t believe what we have done. It’s incredible.”

To understand the sense of achievement, you have to go back to the start. Back to the Leinster sub-Academy, when a young Terry Kennedy found himself in a position so many young rugby players dream of. 

Only it didn’t feel like a dream.

Kennedy had already dipped his toes in Sevens rugby having been put forward for an U19s tournament and subsequently recommended for the senior squad. He instantly found Sevens a more enjoyable pursuit than the tried and tested sub-Academy–Academy–senior squad route through the provinces. 

“I remember I had a chat with Peter Smyth, the (Leinster) Academy manager at the time,” Kennedy explains.

terry-kennedy-runs-in-for-a-try Kennedy playing for the Ireland U20s against a Leinster development team in 2015. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“I’d know Smythy quite well with St Mary’s. I met him with my Dad at the end of the first year with the Academy, and I just said to him that I wasn’t really enjoying being in Leinster and that I was thinking of moving on.

“The reason you start playing rugby is because of the enjoyment of it, and when that starts to go it makes it very difficult.”

Kennedy was convinced to stick it out another year with Leinster and made a handful of appearances with the Ireland U20s, but he did so with his eyes very much on the new, albeit not very lucrative, Sevens contracts being introduced by the IRFU the following year. 

I was enjoying the Sevens a hell of a lot, the travel around it, the freedom. I was like, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I play rugby because I enjoy it. Obviously it’s great if you can make a career out of it for a bit, but I want to be playing something I enjoy and the Sevens was that for me. So it made a lot more sense to just fully focus on that.  

“That second year in the Academy, I was basically just Sevens the whole time. A couple of times a week we were in Leinster for gym sessions and there was myself, Jimmy O’Brien, Hugo Keenan, and we were all Leinster, but with the Sevens full-time. 

“Then at the end of that second year, it was very much a mutual agreement that it just made a lot more sense to go full-time with the Sevens and not even have to mess around with being torn between the two. It suited both parties.”

It was was a brave call, with the Sevens pathway far less clear than the established road through 15s. As some of his Leinster Academy teammates pushed towards the senior squad, Kennedy’s first Sevens tournament took him to Zagreb, Croatia, for a Rugby Europe Division B Tournament. 

From day one, he felt only support and encouragement from those who matter most. 

I remember my Dad came to that first one in Croatia that weekend. The main thing with him is he has always been encouraging. He loves it as long as I love it, you know? So as long as I’m enjoying it he’s absolutely delighted and he loves it and loves following us.

“I think he was more nervous than some of us last weekend. He couldn’t watch the matches with anyone, had to be on his own, said he could barely eat. I’ve never seen him so relieved, and just happy for us. He’s just buzzing now.

“He’s great to have there to get a few tips and stuff, but most of the time it’s just encouragement more than anything else.”

Terry Sr is well placed to offer advice, having won 13 caps for Ireland in the late 1970s. As his nickname, ‘The Rat’, suggests, he displayed many of the same characteristics his son has brought to the Sevens stage – speed, energy, quick thinking.

Clearly suited to the Sevens game, Terry Jr quickly became an important cog in the IRFU’s Sevens system.

“The goal was to just take it one year at a time, but obviously we were always eyeing up that Hong Kong World Series spot [to become one of the 15 core sides on the World Rugby Sevens Series].

“We went there in 2018 and lost out to Japan in the semi-final, and that was pretty tough to take because you knew you had to wait a full year to go at it again. That was devastating. We then came together as a squad and said we’ll all give it one last push.”

One year later, Ireland went back to Hong Kong and beat the hosts by 21 points in the qualifier final.

“There was such pressure on us then, but it was more internal pressure that we put on ourselves because we knew how important it was and it really did define and shape the next few years of our lives.

“Who knows what would have happened if we didn’t win it in 2019? I’d say a lot of guys would have had to probably move on, but thankfully we did (win it).”

terry-kennedy Kennedy scored nine tries in Monaco last weekend. Manuel Blondeau / INPHO Manuel Blondeau / INPHO / INPHO

Then, in 2020, the squad suffered another setback. As the emergence of coronavirus put rugby seasons on hold across the world, the Sevens picture became particularly muddied as a series of tournaments were scrapped.

Fiji, the USA, New Zealand and South Africa had qualified for the Olympics via the World Series in 2019. England won the European qualifier tournament to secure a spot for Tokyo [where a Great Britain team will compete]. 

If Ireland were to secure the last available ticket to the Games, they would have to win the 10-team, intercontinental repechage in Monaco, penned in for June of last year. When that was postponed, nobody really knew what the plan was.

“Not wanting the year to just pass by”, Kennedy, like many of his teammates, put extra focus on working towards his life beyond Sevens, juggling a new job with his demanding training schedule.

“There was a lot of lads kind of stuck in limbo (during lockdown). We just said we would stick at it as a group and put in the effort, because you might not get the opportunity to have a go at it (qualifying for the Olympics) again. 

“So we said for the year that was in it, just give it a real go and have no regrets after it. The last 15 months, it has been hard at times.

“The most difficult part was just not really having an end goal. Obviously the repechage was a long-term goal, but then there were so many doubts about if the Olympics would go ahead, whether the (Monaco) tournament would go ahead. 

In a normal World Series year you always have a tournament in two or three weeks time to look forward to and to build towards, but we didn’t have that. The training weeks were just kind of rolling one week into other, and there wasn’t an awful lot to separate them. That was probably the toughest part.”

Eventually some sort of normality began to piece together, the repechage scheduled to take place just one month before the Sevens Olympics event.

Ireland were placed in Pool A, where they would take on Samoa, Zimbabwe, Tonga and Mexico. The top two teams would then advance to the semi-finals to play for a place in the qualifier final. At some stage, Pool B heavyweights France [ranked 6th to Ireland's 10th in 2020] would be lying in wait.

Ireland topped their pool with a final return of 126 points scored and just 17 conceded. Anthony Eddy’s side then breezed past Hong Kong in their semi-final on a score of 28-5, before that stunning defeat of France in the final.

“We have this determination,” Kennedy continues.

“We just kind of come together and keep it calm on the pitch. We have massive internal belief. The fact we are such a close-knit group and all such good mates, we back our ability (as a group). We’ve shown so many times that when we do play well, we can beat the best and we have beaten the best.”

Kennedy finished with nine tries and a string of impressive assists for his partner-in-crime Jordan Conroy, who bagged 11 tries, the pick of the bunch a telepathic no-look, out-the-back pass to the Tullamore flyer.

You watch this team play, and quickly realise confidence is not an issue. 

So, what’s the aim for Tokyo?

“It’s a funny one, the pressure is off us now,” Kennedy explains.

“Getting into the Olympics as the 12th team going into it, we don’t really have a whole lot of pressure on us, but closer to the time we’ll put a bit of pressure on ourselves because we know that when we do play to our best, we can compete with anyone. 

“With the format of a 12-team competition, you win a couple of matches and then you are looking at a quarter-final, who knows what can happen then? You win that and you’re competing for a medal, so our aspirations going to the Olympics will definitely be to try and get a medal. We’ll give it our best shot.

“Sevens has given lads a second crack at the whip when they got released or it didn’t work out at some of the provinces, and it gives you that second chance to go and play on an international scale in big stadiums with big crowds.

“Even off the pitch we’re best mates, and I think that probably shows in how we play, or how we celebrate. It’s probably as close-knit a group as I’ve ever been involved with.” 

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss Ireland’s Sevens success, the retirement of Connacht’s Seán O’Brien, the introduction of the 50/22 law at Test level, Noel McNamara’s move to the Sharks, this weekend’s English and French league finals, and the Lions’ opener against the returning Japanese. 

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