Six years on from taking fledgling strides at a tournament in Bosnia, the Ireland Sevens team secured qualification for this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Anthony Eddy’s squad won the World Rugby Olympic Repechage tournament in Monaco, defeating hosts France 28-19 in the final to mark a tumultuous weekend for a remarkable group.
The Irish side were unbeaten across six matches and two days to achieve a momentous first; not bad for a programme that was only reconstituted in 2015.
It was appropriate that Ireland’s final try in Monaco was scored by Harry McNulty, the only player in the current squad who can trace his Sevens rugby genealogy back to that very first match in a European C grade tournament in Bosnia. McNulty returned from playing club rugby in Los Angeles to join his Sevens buddies for a crack at the Olympics.
He recalled those early days: “I did an open-day trial out at Santry on the running track, involving a CMJ [counter movement jump], a 10- and 20-metre sprint test and a yo-yo fitness test. That was the baseline testing throughout the whole country. Foster Horan [also in Monaco] and I tested side by side, so it is cool that we are playing together.
“I don’t score many tries. I got to score in Hong Kong in the final when we qualified [for the World Series]. I dreamt of that moment [qualifying for the Olympics]. It didn’t matter who put it down. It was a team effort, a team performance.
Ireland beat Zimbabwe, Mexico, Tonga and Samoa at the pool stages to earn a semi-final against Hong Kong and won that match 28-5. The final pitted them against hosts and favourites France. Terry Kennedy scored an early try but the French led 12-7 at the interval.
A brace from Ireland’s wing sensation Jordan Conroy and a brilliant touchline conversion by captain Billy Dardis from the second nudged Ireland into a 21-12 lead. McNulty’s try was the cue for unbridled celebration that was in no way dampened by an injury-time consolation score for France.
Between them Conroy (11) and Terry Kennedy (nine) scored 20 tries over the tournament, invariably creating for each other. Conroy smiled: “You build up a chemistry; we might as well be twins. I’d say we are an absolute nightmare [to defend against]. Mental warfare in the second half, I wanted to leave everything on the pitch. It was a one-in-a-lifetime chance.”
In 2016 when the Ireland Men’s Sevens team tried and failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics, McNulty, Ian Fitzpatrick and Billy Dardis were part of the playing group; as they were again this weekend. Dardis, the Ireland captain, explained: “We started at the very bottom of European Sevens rugby. This core group of lads stuck around. Everyone has been through hardships; everyone has been through tough times. Guys in this squad have been in academies and got let go; that’s the twist in the story, the tale of us all.
“We have done something incredible here, put ourselves on the map, put Irish Sevens on the map. It will do wonders for Irish Sevens. Kids might start playing after seeing us at the Olympics.”
Ireland head coach Anthony Eddy, who has overseen and developed the programme, admitted: “It’s been a fairly emotional weekend. I am delighted for them. We always came here knowing that the boys were well capable of achieving what they have achieved.
“Six years they have worked tirelessly to get to where they are as of today, and going to the Olympics in four weeks’ time is well deserved.”
Looking at that time, Eddy was asked what made him most proud. “Probably the achievement today, having an Irish team being represented at the Olympics Games is fantastic.
“It’s not just good for the players and the programme, it’s great for Irish rugby and it is great for Ireland. I’m delighted for them. To have the Men’s programme in Tokyo is an outstanding achievement and the boys should be really pleased with themselves.”
IRELAND SEVENS SQUAD
Jack Kelly (Dublin University), Harry McNulty (LA Giltinis), Foster Horan (Lansdowne), Ian Fitzpatrick (Lansdowne), Adam Leavy (Lansdowne), Billy Dardis (Terenure College), Sean Cribbin (Suttonians), Hugo Lennox (Skerries), G O'Shea (Shannon), Terry Kennedy (St Mary's College), Jordan Conroy (Buccaneers), Aaron Sexton (Malone/Ulster), Mark Roche (Lansdowne), Bryan Mollen (Blackrock College).
Pool matches: Ireland 31 Zimbabwe 10; Ireland 31 Mexico 0; Ireland 43 Tonga 0; Ireland 21 Samoa 7.
Semi-final: Ireland 28 Hong Kong 5
Final: Ireland 28 France 19
Olympic Sevens Qualifiers: Ireland, Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Japan, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Kenya, Great Britain, South Korea.