Tokyo ambition still alive for men’s 7s but women’s squad come up short

THE IRFU IS convinced that qualification for the rugby sevens at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo would push the seven-player code of the sport onto an entirely new level in Ireland, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Having an Irish team competing at the Olympics in Japan would position sevens on a far wider stage than it has ever enjoyed in this country, where the shortened version of rugby remains outside the general sporting consciousness.

Ireland 7s star Jordan Conroy. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

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The chances of earning a spot in next year’s Games in Tokyo now rest solely on the shoulders of the Ireland men’s sevens team after the women’s squad’s hopes were ended in Russia yesterday.

The men’s squad kept their ambitions alive by finishing third at the Rugby Europe Olympic Qualifier in France yesterday, meaning they go into the World Repechage Qualifier next year – the winner of which will take the 12th and final spot at the Olympics.

The women’s squad fell short with a quarter-final exit against eventual winners England in the Cup competition at their European event in Kazan and the failure to reach the Olympics is a big setback for the programme. A pool defeat to Spain was most damaging of all in Russia, handing Ireland an extremely difficult quarter-final draw.

Captain Billy Dardis and his men’s squad saved perhaps their most complete performance for last in Colomiers, beating Portugal to secure third position and safe passage into the World Repechage Qualifier.

The consistently impactful Harry McNulty – who played in Ireland’s first tournament after the programme was relaunched in 2015 – scored a brace of tries in the win over the Portuguese, star paceman Jordan Conroy finished a first-half try, while relative newcomer Jack Kelly also dotted down.

McNulty and Kelly demonstrate one of several sides to the make-up of this Ireland men’s squad.

McNulty left the Munster academy in 2014 and has been an ever-present in the sevens group since Ireland began life in Division C of the European competitions in 2015.

Former Ireland U20 captain Kelly, meanwhile, has spent the past three years in Leinster’s academy. He initially looked likely to leave his native province this summer but is now set to remain with Leinster through until December as cover during the World Cup period.

Hugo Keenan of Leinster featured in Colomiers. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

If that doesn’t lead to a further contract extension, Kelly may be a valuable addition to the sevens programme in the longer-term, although there is likely to be interest from elsewhere in the talented back.

Several other ex-academy players were important cogs in last weekend’s Ireland group, namely Jordan Conroy, captain Dardis, Ian Fitzpatrick, Terry Kennedy, Adam Leavy and Greg O’Shea.

Ireland’s squad in Colomiers also included Leinster’s Hugo Keenan, who advances from the academy onto a senior contract in the upcoming season, while Munster’s Shane Daly was named in the 13-man squad but fell sick before the competition got underway, according to the IRFU.

Meanwhile, club players Foster Horan, Bryan Mollen and Mark Roche continue to play important roles.

Next on the agenda for Ireland is the season-closing Lodz 7s Grand Prix in Poland this weekend, 20/21 July.

August will be a holiday month, with the squad returning to training in September, as their first-ever season on the World Rugby Sevens Series beckons.

As for the women’s group, there is a trip to Ukraine for the Kharkiv 7s Grand Prix this weekend, ending a season that promised much but will ultimately be viewed as a disappointment.

Lucy Mulhall and co. achieved a first-ever Cup semi-final on the Sevens Series in Sydney back in February but their failure to reach the Olympics and not even give themselves a final opportunity in the World Repechage Qualifier will be a bitter pill to swallow.

Ireland women’s 7s captain Lucy Mulhall. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

This Ireland squad includes many young players who will most likely have a shot at qualifying for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but four years is a cruelly long time to wait. 

Under the stewardship of director of sevens rugby Anthony Eddy, the Ireland women’s squad will look for far more consistency on the Series next season, where regular Cup semi-finals will be the target.

It remains to be seen whether achievements on the Series will provide the “enormous boost” that the IRFU envisages Olympic qualification providing.

That Olympic task is now in the hands of the men’s squad, although they don’t know exactly when or where next year’s World Repechage tournament will take place [the 2016 version took place in June in Monaco].

France – who finished second in Colomiers last weekend following a semi-final win over Ireland – will be a major threat in the repechage, while Brazil, Chile, Jamaica, and Mexico are the other confirmed teams so far.

The nations from Africa, Asia and Oceania – from where Australia or Samoa are likely to be real dangers – are yet to be finalised, with their regional qualifying tournaments due to take place later this year.

World Rugby will be looking for a host nation for the repechage tournament and it will be interesting to see if the IRFU puts its hand up.

If the union is indeed keen to continue to grow the public interest levels in sevens, an exciting Olympic qualifying tournament on these shores – as with the women’s version in 2016 – might be a decent step.

And if the men’s squad can confirm a place in the Olympics next year, it would firmly strengthen their bargaining position with regards to their ‘full-time’ contracts, which currently have a value of just €18,000 per season.

Competing at the Games is about much more than money, of course, and Ireland’s hopes of heading to Tokyo next summer remain alive.

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