Gerry Thornley: Olympics qualification a watershed moment for Ireland Sevens

Adapting to a constantly evolving squad makes players’ feat even more impressive

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Last weekend was a relative oddity in that neither the Irish senior men’s team nor any of the provinces were in action, and yet Irish feel-good stories abounded, none better than the men’s Sevens team qualifying for the Olympics through winning the Monaco repechage. No group of players deserve it more.

It’s been well documented that Hugo Keenan, Adam Byrne, Will Connors and Shane Daly have all been part of the Sevens programme and gone on to play at 15s for their provinces and Ireland. Robert Baloucoune, Tom Daly and Nick Timoney will follow suit next month.

Alex Wotton, formerly of Munster and now Connacht, can’t have been far away after his prolific season and Dan Goggin at Munster and Jimmy O’Brien at Leinster are others who’ve represented Ireland at Sevens.

Even if some might have made it any way, David Nucifora can point to his rebooting of the Sevens programme in 2016 as a success, and now even more so in the glow of the squad qualifying for the Olympics.

It is a monumental breakthrough and watershed moment for Sevens rugby in Ireland bearing in mind the cache that comes with the Olympics and the ensuing potential growth of the game.

Given that all of the aforementioned players have had to be replaced in a constantly evolving squad backboned by originals such as Harry McNulty and Foster Horan, that makes their qualification even more impressive.

It’s one thing adding another pathway to professional rugby, it’s something else altogether to become one of just 12 countries who will be competing at the Olympic Sevens tournament next month.

The Irish Times incurred the wrath of Nucifora in May 2019 after the team qualified for the Men’s Sevens World Series when reporting that the IRFU insisted on keeping the players on the same basic annual salary of €18,000 – equivalent to a development contract but less than someone on the minimum wage.

There was also a modest appearance system but even if a player avoided injury and competed in every event, the maximum he could earn in a year would be €23,750.

Their Scottish, English, Australian and New Zealand counterparts were all paid more, and when the Irish squad had suggested they seek sponsorship, this was rejected by Nucifora as a potentially dangerous precedent.

But the point being that for those that do not make it in the 15s game, Sevens is not a financially remunerative profession here. To the players’ credit, the squad stayed together and have now been rewarded, if not financially, then in something more intangible.

Distraught

It could be seen in the distraught reaction of the French players and as Ireland captain Bully Dardis said in his emotional and moving post-final interview, like everyone else they had been through some tough times but now, and for the rest of their lives, they will be Olympians. No one can take that away from them.

What makes their achievement even more rewarding, emotionally, is that as Dardis also put it, they have all been let go by their respective provinces. “It’s the twisted tale of us all,” as he put it.

Many Sevens players combine their rugby commitments with studies. The elusive, hard-running Jack Kelly, an important link man and strong in the jackal, has completed his law degree from Trinity College. Adam Leavy, brother of Dan, who plays with Lansdowne and is an impact man off the bench in Monaco, graduated from NUI Galway with an economics degree.

Dardis, a product of Terenure College, Irish Under-20s, UCD and the Leinster academy who was let go after one year without an appearance in the Leinster senior squad, is completing a masters to add to other qualifications on top of a degree in health and performance science in UCD. His brilliant kicking game is a vital component of Anthony Eddy’s well-balanced team, be it his pinpoint and hanging restarts or his conversions.

Of course, the X factor comes from the telepathic sidekicks Terry Kennedy and Jordan Conroy, the ex-Tullamore and Buccaneers flyer who provides the Simon Zebo-like swagger and personality to the team. Give him a sniff and it’s a try.

His 18 carries in six matches over the weekend led to 11 line breaks and 11 tries, with Kennedy his main supplier of assists as well as scoring eight tries of his own. The pick of those assists was undoubtedly Kennedy’s outrageous out-the-back, no-look offload while on his knees to Conroy on the right touchline.

Even before touching down Conroy pointed approvingly at Kennedy before then exclaiming: “That’s my boy.”

Only once did they not click, namely when Conroy sliced a volley from Kennedy’s cross-kick in the semi-final win over Hong Kong.

Even so, when the two amigos were interviewed jointly after the final, Conroy held his three-striped boots to his chest and suggested Adidas might be of a mind to sponsor him. And good luck to him on that one too.

Elsewhere over the weekend, the Irish Under-20s began the defence of their Six Nations crown with a rusty bonus-point win over Scotland.

In addition, Ronan O’Gara’s profound influence on La Rochelle’s well-coached and convincing eclipse of an off-colour Finn Russell and Racing earned les maritimes a first ever appearance in the French Championship final against Toulouse in what will be a reprise of the Heineken Champions Cup final in Paris next Friday night.

Sacked

His one-time Munster and Irish team-mate Jerry Flannery has also played a significant role in helping Harlequins to an even more unlikely first Premiership final in nine years. When the London club sacked Paul Gustard in January, they were seventh in the table. A run of 11 wins in 16 matches, propelled them into the top four, with Flannery’s work on their line-out a key launch pad for their attacking brio.

Harlequins’ season seemed over when 28-0 down inside half an hour in their breathtaking semi-final away to an initially rampant Bristol last Saturday, whereupon they completed the biggest comeback in Premiership history to eventually win 43-36 after extra time.

Like O’Gara and La Rochelle, Harlequins will take on the holders Exeter in Saturday’s final at Twickenham. Some achievement by both Munstermen, but no surprise at all.

PS: A host of former rugby players, the Wallace brothers, Malcolm O’Kelly, Liam Toland among them, will next weekend attempt to break a World Rowing 24 Hour record for the IRFU Charitable Trust in what has been a tough year for fundraising.

Donations can be made at: justgiving.com/fundraising/rugbyrowers2021.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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