Hatching a plan to put Ireland’s Sevens rugby players on Rio’s podium in 2016

“If we can take the camogie and Gaelic football background that we do have and merge that into Sevens then we can have a very successful team”

The IRFU are out scouring the GAA’s playing fields to unearth some little gems like Alison Miller (above).

The IRFU are out scouring the GAA’s playing fields to unearth some little gems like Alison Miller (above).

 

Interviewing three wise men about women’s rugby in one sitting has its challenges. For starters, they all have something to say. And in IRFU director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth’s case he only had a short time frame in which to say it.

The sole topic on the agenda at the union’s Lansdowne Road offices last week was Sevens rugby (women only as no plan exists for their male counterparts) and the strategic plan to get them among the medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Scott Walker, who oversees development and the club game, provided the bulk of information about the long-term plans with the Sevens head coach John Skurr speaking about the work being done at the training base on DCU’s campus.

Shorn of every player currently defending the Six Nations title, the women struggled at the second leg of the IRB world series in Atlanta on Saturday, ensuring a continuation of the steepest of learning curves in São Paulo next weekend. At least heavy defeats to England and New Zealand were offset by victory over the Netherlands 12-10, with tries from Nicole Cronin and Sharon Houston.

The last two legs of the world series take place in China (April 5th-6th) and Amsterdam (May 16th-17th).

In the immediate aftermath of last year’s historic and beautifully contrived Grand Slam, eight of Philip Doyle’s victorious squad immediately switched their focus to the IRB world series event in China. Despite being streets behind other major nations, having arrived late to the party, there was enough talent in the ranks to qualify for the elite tier in 2014.

When the fixture list forced these players to choose between playing proper rugby or its hybrid cousin, they all decided to defend their championship crown and then focus on the World Cup in France next August.

It means the current 14-strong Ireland Sevens panel has, according to Skurr, “four or five already capped internationals who came through our original plans. One girl has come through our under-18s team that competed in the school games. We got about five girls who have come through the talent identification programme (TID) and two girls who came from our assessment days”.

The plan is simple enough. Rugby are scouring the country for the best young athletes, camogie players, Gaelic footballers and hockey stars, providing a crash course in a game they want them to perform to an Olympic level within two years.


‘Games culture’
“New Zealand have a rugby culture but we have a games culture,” said Skurr. “If we can take the camogie and Gaelic football background that we do have and merge that into Sevens then we can have a very successful team. The opportunity to do that is massive.

“We’re seeing it with our 15-a-side team; Niamh Briggs, Lynne Cantwell, Nora Stapleton, Claire Molloy, Jenny Murphy and Ali Miller have all come from GAA backgrounds or other sports.”

True, but they have been rugby players from some time now. The hope is that many of the above will come back to Sevens next year when Ireland attempt to complete a tricky qualification route to Rio (http://iti.ms/1bQ5lxq).

Wigglesworth believes this is doable: “We looking to transfer top level athletes at the same time as sucking them in at bottom level by selling them a whole Olympic dream, Olympic passion, call it want you want.”

When it comes to men’s rugby, the union are currently identifying talent for the next two World Cup cycles (2019 and 2023) with the current cycle already in motion. With that in mind, can a genuinely competitive Sevens squad travel to Brazil in 2016?

“The strategic plan for the IRFU is to endeavour to qualify for Rio,” said Wigglesworth. “We stated in our submission to the Sports Council that we will be going after a podium position in Rio.

“Now there are challenges we have to face like conflict with the IRB in terms of competition structures because the IRB have blinkers on in relation to Sevens.

“They see Sevens as a huge Pandora’s Box in terms of opening up the global game to the concept of rugby union. In the interim we don’t believe they have managed the interface between 15s and sevens terribly well.

‘Posed challenges’
“That’s posed challenges for us with the girls. In all our years of management with the girls we have never put them into a position of choice between two national jerseys and that’s what we have this week in the middle of the Six Nations.”

The Sports Council allocated €1.1million to the IRFU Sevens programme last year with the union funding the other 70 per cent (approximately €2.5 million).

“Female rugby in Ireland is an extremely small sport,” Walker interjected. “There are about 3,000 players.

“The success of 15s has led to a growth in the game. We see Sevens as another opportunity to put women’s team sport onto the world stage. Through rugby.”

So, to the practicalities of all this. Do the union believe it is feasible to hold down a job – or studies – while, schedule permitting, playing both sevens and 15 aside for Ireland in the one calendar year?

“Absolutely,” Wigglesworth replied. “If you want to go after an Olympic medal then we have to have centralisation. There is no doubt that we will have girls on a sevens centralised programme who will have a limited exchange with 15s.

“Their primary focus will be sevens because of the competition framework.”

He went on to state that unless the IRB increases the world series from five tournaments a year, the IRFU cannot see it as being sustainable for them.

“We are creating other European events in addition to the FIRA calendar to ring fence the centralisation aspect.”

There are two more Sevens tournaments between the Six Nations and the World Cup, in China and the Netherlands, but can there be a crossover of players from 15s to help Ireland remain in the top tier and thereby ensure a realistic chance of qualifying for the Olympic Games?

“That is a choice for the players,” said Wigglesworth.

Peak performance
The choice has already been made. After the Six Nations the women, led by Fiona Coghlan, will narrow their focus to ensure peak performance is achieved at the World Cup next August. And everyone already knows this.

Not that Skurr’s Sevens set-up isn’t getting plenty of resources to ensure “improvement at a rapid rate”.

Still, converting athletes into rugby players in such a short space of time has a real feel of the cart being dragged before the horse.

“What I want to see is players coming through and developing on the international stage,” said Skurr.

“You look at the training hours behind a lot of our international rugby players it’s probably in three figures. To be an expert you got to have 10,000 hours (training). What we have to do is give them exposure and then put the hours behind them.

“We never let any girl play without going through a full 50-60 hours (of supervised training). On average our girls have 150 hours of training before they play a competitive game.”

That still seems undercooked.

“To fast-track,” Skurr responded, “you find an individual and you wrap everything around them.”

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