Tokyo 2020: Calamity strikes as Kenya bring an end to Ireland’s Rugby Sevens dream

The future is bright but failure to reach the last-eight is a bitter blow for fledgling side

Kenya’s Vincent Onyala scores a late try despite the best efforts of Ian Fitzpatrick and Jordan Conroy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

It was a heck of a way to go out of the Olympics. The Irish Rugby Sevens team were smarting all the more in that they came to humid Tokyo with firm ambitions and left as several other Irish athletes have, cursing the damned Olympic gods and much more closer to home.

With a minute left on the clock in Tokyo Stadium, Ireland were poised for that quarter-final place, up12-0 on Kenya and needing to win by eight points. Mission accomplished.

Then calamity. Kenya scored a try and added the conversion for yet another serving of Olympic melodrama, Ireland falling out of the group of eight teams contending for medals. Another harsh lesson in the game of margins, with the most strident criticism coming from the players themselves.

“Probably one of the lesser performances of our careers, probably,” said Harry McNulty. “I don’t know what’s really going on.”


It won't temper the heartbreak. But coach James Topping knows that for Ireland and the pursuit of Olympic medals there is a longer game in play.

“For us guys it’s another stepping stone,” says Topping, a former Irish 15-a-side and Sevens player. “We’ve only been on maybe half of our World Series. It was kind of cut short our first year. So to get to play here was something that was in our goals. We change those goals now.

“In Ireland we are a national team first and we are starting to build down from that almost to try and get Sevens to grow a bit more. Hopefully on this Olympic stage people will see that. It’s only three years now until the next Olympics.”

Harry McNulty looks dejected after Ireland missed out on a place in the last-eight. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Relatively Sevens is in its infancy in Ireland. The base of top players is small compared to other countries. Growing the base and making it competitive at age group levels is a work in progress.

While the team will finish ninth or 10th, Topping knows there is also a significance attached to having competed in Tokyo.

The Olympic brand is not only bigger than World Rugby but it touches different people and genders. As a recruitment device for the sport as Ireland looks forwards, the players despair has at least been usefully employed.

“Oh, the Olympics are huge,” says Topping. “We’re disappointed our girls aren’t here and for the next Olympics that’s definitely a goal. The brand, of course, is going to drag people in we would hope.

“We qualified about three weeks before the Games started. If we’d qualified the year before we might have gotten a large amount of interest, maybe from people from outside rugby and those inside who could have seen the Olympics as a kind of goal for them to chase.

“When we return in three years we can cast that as a card to people and say listen we’re building towards these Olympics do you want to come along and have a go. Definitely in Ireland our squad is quite small and quite tight. We are able to compete at the minute. But we are going to have to grow that to be able to compete at the very top level.”

Still, the mood after the game against Kenya in the massive and empty Tokyo Stadium, is that Ireland missed a trick. Participation in the tournament is one thing. An Olympic medal of any colour around an Irish player’s neck is of another dimension entirely in capturing the five ringed zeitgeist.

"We're absolutely gutted," said Terry Kennedy, summing up the collective mood. The Olympics strike again, Paris a dim light three years away.