When Billy Dardis found himself presented with a live microphone in the immediate aftermath of Irish rugby history in Monaco last month he wasn't just the right man, in the right place, and after roughly six years of want and waiting, at exactly the right time.
No Irish player was better able to articulate the journey of the Rugby Sevens team up to that point – and a properly pioneering journey at that, one where Dardis and his team-mates came from the proverbial nowhere, enduring soft mockery at times, to Tokyo Olympic qualification with the sudden feeling the whole country was behind them now.
It also came after another weekend when the odds – not true to form perhaps – were stacked against them: repechage tournament favourites France appeared poised to land the winner-takes-all of the last of the 12 spots for Tokyo, until Ireland came from behind to beat them 28-19 in the thrilling decider. Or indeed that Ireland had gone unbeaten all weekend.
Dardis had also been there when Rugby Sevens was viewed as a weak and poor and distinctly inferior relation to Test Rugby, and freely admits now that when his own career at the Leinster Academy and one-year pro contract was cut unceremoniously short in the summer of 2017, he considered it a demotion hardly worthy of mention.
Only now, just days away from that Olympic debut in Tokyo (Ireland drawn in Pool C with South Africa, USA and Kenya), Dardis can reflect further on that moment of opposite realisation in Monaco, his interview as team captain afterwards also entering Oscar winning territory such were the accolades of thanks he distributed.
“I think as I was giving that interview, after the game, it was as I was saying things, I was realising how big of a thing it all was, how big of an achievement,” says Dardis, one of the many players on the 12-man squad who could talk the talk because he’d walked the walk, every step of the way.
“It was pretty raw, a lot of emotion not just for myself but for the whole team. Everyone just thinking, ‘we’re going to the Olympics’ and it’s still a weird one of try to wrap your head around the enormity of it.
“It really did feel like everything was building up to that weekend in Monaco, which is why after that final whistle went, and after the interview of all that, I actually had a few minutes, standing on the pitch, and everything just came back, and hit me at that one moment. Thinking back on everything at school, all the big days it took to get here.
Still only 26, Dardis has indeed come a long way. He began his rugby career at Naas RFC and Newbridge College (where he also played GAA), before switching to Terenure College, playing two years Senior Cup. From there he went to UCD, before three years in the Leinster academy: although awarded a pro contract ahead of the 2016-17 season, he didn't make an appearance, which is when Rugby Sevens first became the priority, playing between scrumhalf and halfback.
While his own scepticism, cynicism and even ignorance of the game soon changed, especially by the time he was Irish captain for the Rugby Sevens World Cup in 2018, it’s taken longer for that to happen in the wider sense. “From my point of view, that’s been the major shift. Like when I started playing sevens, I didn’t actually want to go and play for it. It was like, if I go and play sevens, it’s like I’m being let go from my province. That’s the way I looked at it.
"It's only been over the last few years, and more players bounced in and out of it, and we've got more guys who have played sevens and gone on and played international, like Hugo Keenan, Shane Daly. And then the actual performance we've put on the last few years, the tournaments we get to play in, the cities we get to travel to. I think players have started to realise this is pretty cool, a cool lifestyle for a few years, it's become a more attractive pathway for players to bounce in and out, because they can see the benefits, and how much fun they can have as well.
“That has changed massively, you’re going to get young academy lads who see this as something they can bounce into for a year, and bounce out of, hopefully get a few shots and Pro14 and provincial level, so it can really push on your game. I’ve certainly found it’s pushed me on to new heights, and I’d certainly love another crack at 15s, to see how much better it has made me.
"Also from the outside, at the 2018 Rugby World Cup, we'd be around three or four years, but it was still relatively new, and I remember guys we're being sent screen shots of Tweets or whatever of people being like, 'who are these bunch of students being sent on holiday to San Francisco'. There just really wasn't that much respect. More that they didn't realise how much work goes in.
“And anyone who comes in says it’s so relaxed, just a good bunch of blokes, who’ve all had their time in the dumps, have gone through that kind of devastation, and everyone is allowed be themselves, and I think you can see that by some of the characters we have in the squad, a unique group of lads. And only 12 of us, travelling the world, unlike with 15’s there could be 50 in camp, and you might not ever chat with anyone.”
He admits too that as a youngster playing rugby, the Olympics weren’t necessarily any motivation: he does remember watching Sonia O’Sullivan win her silver medal over 5,000m in Sydney 2000, and for days after that racing with friends around the local green. Now, it’s not just about competing, but trying to win a medal.
“We’d be crazy not going over there wanting to win a gold medal. You go into every game wanting to win. Especially in sevens, you have to take it each game at a time, every moment. And I think the best way of looking at t for us is that we’ve experienced this high-pressure tournament only a matter of weeks ago. Other teams haven’t played any high-pressure tournaments in the last 18, 19 months.
“But no, traditionally rugby players wouldn’t grow up dreaming about the Olympics. So it was only when I started into sevens, I started to realise this would be pretty cool, to say you were an Olympian. That’s why it’s all still a bit mind blowing, to say I’m going to captain an Irish team at the Olympics.”