Rio, Rugby and Olympic medals

The IRFU have embarked on an ambitious plan to bring success in women’s sevens rugby

Ireland’s Alison Miller in action against France. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland’s Alison Miller in action against France. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Sat, May 4, 2013, 05:00

They are selling a dream of Rio. Neatly packaged, lavishly funded, hard work required but no experience necessary, the IRFU has moved from their natural perch of cautiously prudent to the higher ground of ambitiously experimental. Roll up, roll up for an Olympic Games in just three years.

Sweeping the country seeking raw talent that they can mould into an international women’s sevens team and ultimately Olympic medal winners, the rewards dangling in front of the GAA players, international athletes, soccer lovers and weight-lifters comfortably surpasses those which many other sports can offer. Already around 100 athletes have been looked at from a wide range of sporting backgrounds in Talent Identification Screening with less than 15 of those graduating to the developmental stage of the program.

Because of its acceptance into the 2016 Games and the steep learning curves of many other countries hoping to qualify, the Irish Women’s sevens has been hawking its Olympic idea with some firmly held ambitions too.

“Look it’s a challenge but a realistic challenge. We do not go to tournaments just to play,” says team manager Gemma Crowley. “The pool of talent we have and the work they put in, I believe qualification is a reality but also a podium place . . . we go to compete in these tournaments.”

The IRFU and Irish Sports Council have sponsored the ambitious enterprise. It’s a hard-headed decision by people more used to saying ‘no’ when asked to write cheques. The €1.1 million funding total is aimed at producing medals.

“The Irish Sports Council wouldn’t have backed us if they didn’t see it as a realistic challenge, the same with the IRFU,” says Crowley. “There wouldn’t have been such a large portion of funding put into a program that wasn’t going to be successful.”

The squad
There is a crossover of players between the 15-a-side and sevens games with other players focussing solely on one or the other. Of the squad that flew to the Hong Kong sevens and China earlier this year seven of them had played on the Ireland team that won this season’s Six Nations Grand Slam in Milan.

Now with the cross pollination effect of the talent screening the base is broadening as it has been attracting athletes from other sports, many who have never played rugby before. Programs have taken place in LIT in Limerick and Ashbourne RFC with another planned for Ashbourne RFC later this month.

“We screen the players down to a smaller group and then we screen them again. We currently have 13 that will go on a development program for the next couple of months. A few have played a little rugby, a couple played touch rugby and we have the likes of Clare Bergin and Clair McGlynn,” explains Crowley.

“When they came to us we did a couple of tests, counter movement, jumps, power, speed and put them into a game situation without contact to see their hand eye coordination, their agility, not necessarily rugby specific skills but their game awareness and appreciation.

“We videotaped all the sessions too so that all of the national management could look at them in detail and identify players who could go back for another bite of the cherry.”

Bergin, an elite sprinter and bobsledder from Dublin, is used to high-octane competition. A member of the Irish bobsleigh team which qualified for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and finished in 17th place, she also ran on the Irish 4x400m relay team which finished 12th at the last World Athletics Championships in Daegu, Korea and also qualified last year for the London Olympics.

Naomi Cuff, a Mayo county footballer is another candidate and Clare McGlynn, a National Junior and Under 23 Champion in the 400 metres, who more recently took to Olympic weight-lifting having moved away from athletics. After suffering a hamstring injury a couple of years ago she was prevented from getting to the level she wanted. But the hamstrings are good enough for rugby.

“It’s a whole new challenge for me,” says McGlynn. “I never played rugby sevens before so I didn’t have any rugby skills. But I’m loving the fact I’m learning and it’s cool to play. Girls from other sports should be thinking about it because you can really use your fitness and your speed.”

Miller reaction
Now firmly established on the wing, Alison Miller was a college athlete, who also played Gaelic football for Laois, while Claire Keohane played Gaelic football until she went to college in Limerick.

“Runners are used to training on a regular basis,” says Miller. “You are disciplined and used to strength and conditioning. The physicality is not an issue.”

The road to Rio is not yet known with the International Olympic Committee yet to decide on a qualification process. But the summer is busy with Moscow and the Women’s Sevens World Cup the focus. Next year holds out hope of taking part in the 2014-15 World Series where it is envisaged that a top-four finish would gain Olympic entry. Following that there will be regional qualifying tournaments and finally a last chance qualification event depending on the geographical spread of countries already in Rio.

Ireland believes they have a chance whatever way it is broken down.

“When we were in China in March we played some of the best teams in the world,” says Crowley. “We beat Australia. We beat the Dutch. We were beaten by New Zealand but we didn’t play to out potential and led at half-time. Because the Six Nations was right before it that meant some of our players were unavailable for training. If the team can perform like that with limited time together the sky is the limit.”

Three weeks ago in Cork the development players were brought in and fitness tested by national sevens coach John Skurr. Their speed over 10 metres, 30 metres and 100 metres was measured. The raw material is there, the fitness, the movement, the physiques.

“There is a real buzz about them,” says Crowley. “They are relishing the challenge and they are very appreciative of the level of support they are getting. A lot of them wouldn’t be used to the level of support the IRFU provide for their players.”

Maybe not. But either way, it seems worth one throw of the dice. Roll up, roll .