Ireland women dreaming of Olympic Sevens berth

Lucy Mulhall is hoping the squad can qualify on home soil and book their place in Rio

Two years ago there was no certainty that what was to become the IRFU’s great Olympic experiment was ever going to work. What was positive was that from the very beginning they were thinking big.

The idea was to create a rugby team from athletes with certain base skills, comb the Gaelic, soccer, basketball and hockey pitches for those players with the right stuff and glue them together into a team strong enough to qualify for the Olympic Games.

It was the type of extravagant approach normally associated with countries such as China or Russia, big federations with large human resources. In that sense the IRFU tailored for their needs and for what raw material the could find. They didn’t measure femurs or shoulder width or body shapes in children but instead went head hunting for those who had already proven themselves in sport. It didn’t matter which sport it was.

"Yeah," says Lucy Mulhall. "It was bringing together a group of people with baseline skills. Or it can be just the athletic element, a wonderful and weird mix of different talents and different skills."


When the email from the IRFU landed two years ago inviting her to consider thinking about getting rugby to the Olympic Games, her sporting life changed for good.

Now captain of the women’s Irish Sevens side, this weekend offers further opportunity to show the decision to convert from Gaelic football to rugby was the right one to make.

Ireland are now on the cusp of something historic and play in Belfield in a multi-nation repechage event for the Rio Olympics. Winning the competition outright will guarantee Olympic entry. Success there and Mulhall’s team will have essayed one of the stunning success stories in Irish sport.

There has never been an Irish women’s field sport team in the Olympic Games and the last team to qualify from any sport was in 1948. There has never been a women’s rugby team in the Olympic Games.

Mulhall and her team members have travelled at pace along the rugby path. Three years ago it could never have happened.

“I’m from a farm, a sheep farmer I suppose,” she says. “It’s just outside Tinahely, a place called Crossbridge. It’s along the Wicklow Way, a little valley in the middle of the Wicklow mountains.”

GAA filled the days. Her team-mates were neighbours and friends she grew up alongside. She knew their parents and cousins. Small town life, where the GAA club held the centre, ensured close alignments at club and county level. The wrench from that was severe. But Mulhall has never once doubted her choice.

“Obviously it was hard for me. In GAA you grow up with people,” she says. “It’s not like you join a squad. I played with some of them girls since six years old.

“But they were supportive like my family because they knew this was something I wanted. They almost saw an opportunity for me before I could even see it myself. The girls in the team were even more excited for me than I was. That’s what made my decision because people often ask was it hard telling the girls.

“It wasn’t just Tinahely but the county girls made it very, very easy too. Even in UCD last year for the World (Rugby) Series half the people were Tinahely people. The club are organising buses to come up this week.”

She was asked along for fitness tests at first and was then invited back for more. Now she has put her student life and studies in Radiation Therapy at Trinity on ice. At 22-years-old even if Rio is beyond reach this year, Tokyo in four years time would look attractive for a maturing squad.

“I was excited for the opportunity and I could see it was a chance to make me better as an athlete and push myself as far as I could as an athlete,”she says.

“I found it was a really honest sport. Seven people on this massive pitch and there is no hiding space. I love that. The bond in rugby is very much that you are putting your body on the line and I enjoyed that from day one.

“I enjoy the tackling whether it’s from farming . . . people actually say if you are a sheep farmer you have a bit of an advantage. I guess I wouldn’t have been the most physical GAA player so I was wary about whether I would like it or not. But then I really I enjoyed the contact part of it.”

Amsterdam in May two years ago was her trial tournament. At that stage the best teams such as Australia and New Zealand were untouchable by Ireland. They are still the stronger sides but others such as Spain ranked at nine this year and Russia at seven have come within reach. Ireland are 12 in the current rankings with their best showing this season in the Atlanta event, where the team picked up four points. It’s just their second year as a core team in the Series.

Nothing less than victory at the global repechage will do as Ireland face stiff opposition from 15 other teams for the only remaining Rio ticket. Russia and Spain will start as tournament favourites.

“The way we train and how closely we train on a day to day basis gets rid of that aspect as you say of players being flung together. We’ve so much services and one on one coaching that very quickly once you come in from another sport, you do develop those skills. It is very demanding.

“We have 25-30 girls competing for 12 places going to a tournament. I think this weekend is going to be very difficult and I don’t know if any people give us a chance. But we 100 per cent give ourselves a shot. On any given day we can beat any team.

“We’ve beaten Spain who are here at the weekend. They are one of those teams that have managed to beat New Zealand and USA out of nowhere almost. So that was a big win for us. Also this year we’ve shown we can consistently beat Japan, which is positive for us because last year in UCD we were unable to beat them in the final.”

Getting to that final earned Ireland a place as one of the teams in the World Series, which takes place over five global tournaments in Dubai, Sao Paulo, Atlanta, Langford in Canada and Clermont Ferrand in France.

The event in UCD is run over two days with each team playing three games of 14 minutes on Saturday and three again on Sunday. Ireland’s group contains Trinidad and Tobago, Portugal and China. Over 20 matches will be run off each day between 10am and 7pm. There are 16 countries, one Rio place.

“You have to come in and allow yourself to fall in love with the sport first,” says the Irish captain. “If I didn’t I couldn’t enjoy training or going to the gym every day, couldn’t even enjoy travelling to Dubai or any other place.

“Our enjoyment is pushing ourselves as hard as we can. Performance is how we get our enjoyment, not all the flash around it. Being an Olympic sport is going to change rugby sevens into one of those sports that will be massive around the world.”