The Plight of Irish 7s

Land Rover Dubai Rugby Sevens 2010  35

The Irish flag is not being flown at events like the Dubai Sevens on the IRB World Series. (c) landrovermena.

The following is a guest blog by Cian Aherne.

As the last ball sailed into touch in the Shamrock Warriors’ semi final of the Kinsale 7s, meaning they missed out on the final by one score, one couldn’t help but think the IRFU were breathing a sigh of relief. Another chance for promotion of the game of 7s in Ireland gone, another chance for a summer’s 7s funding disappeared and another reason to get 7s off the ground in this country down the drain.

No one sees that the Shamrocks were playing against a fully funded Susie’s Exiles team who had several fringe English 7s players on their side, no one sees that they were made up of AIL players, 90% of whom had never played 7s before, and no one sees that they had actually convincingly beaten every other team in the tournament (including another fully funding touring British side). To think that this group of AIL players, who had only met for the first time on Saturday morning, were as close to winning in Kinsale as an almost fully professional Irish 7s team 4 seasons earlier, shows the enormous potential for a cheap but competitive Irish 7s squad.

Because Ireland have not entered a 7s team in this year’s European Championships, 2013 will see the first 7s World Cup, since it’s inception in 1993, without an Irish team. This is a colossal step backwards despite the fact that 7s has now become an Olympic sport, that Irish rugby greats like Alan Quinlan, Malcolm O’Kelly and Denis Hickie have endorsed the game, that Matt Williams has written a letter to the Taoiseach pleading its economic merits, and that Ireland now has an official 7s club.

The last 7s World Cup and IRB World Series have shone further light on Ireland’s potential. In the European Championships, 4 years ago this summer, Ireland came within extra time and sudden death of beating the Welsh 7s team in Denmark. Between then and the World Cup a year later, Ireland met for a couple of weeks training, changed 90% of their team and were knocked out in the group stages. Wales, on the other hand, had taken part in the World Series, kept most of the same players and went on to win the World Cup.

USA Sevens

Kenya have a successful 7s team in the IRB World Series. They sit 11th coming into the final leg in London this weekend. (c) Chris Dickey.

The IRFU maintain that Ireland cannot compete at the same level as other national 7s teams yet at almost every major tournament they’ve entered, Ireland have taken scalps over seasoned 7s sides without having had a regular 7s team themselves (France and Samoa in 1993, Portugal in 1997, Tonga in 2005 and Australia in 2009). You could argue that Ireland don’t have the resources of the player base to compete in the World Series like New Zealand, England and South Africa but surely we have as much funding and players as the likes of Scotland, Wales, Australia, Samoa and Fiji.

A common myth about Irish 7s is the lack of funding to be competitive. Let’s make this clear, the IRB pay for teams’ accommodation and travel to World Series events. That means all the IRFU would have to pay for is a coaching team to travel. Players could either be paid through their existing provincial contracts or, as I’m sure is the case with the majority of club players, not be paid at all. We don’t need full time professional 7s players to compete, the majority of the Australian 7s team, who recently won the Japan 7s leg of the World Series and the London leg in 2010, are amateur players playing at the same standard as the AIL in Ireland. Ireland currently only have 4 player bases in the 4 provinces, a 7s squad could offer an extremely cheap fifth.

If the Shamrock Warriors can get a group of Irish club players together on a one-off basis to compete against and beat seasoned 7s semi-pros from the UK then the IRFU can get the best Irish club players together to compete on a world stage. In fact, they are already doing this with the Club International side who have beaten the English Counties team on 3 of the last 4 occasions. Here again is a demonstration of the funding myth.

The Irish Clubs team recently brought together 30 players and coaching staff for 2 international clubs matches. They beat Scotland in Dublin but the result of the second match was not even broadcast on the IRFU website. If the IRFU can afford to pay for 30 players and coaching staff to fly to England, to kit them out, feed them, stay in a hotel for the duration and not even put the result of the game on their website then surely they can afford for less than half of that amount of players to travel to at least one leg of the IRB World Series.

National Guard sponsorship of USA Rugby

The majority of the Australian 7s team, who recently won the Japan 7s leg of the World Series, are amateur players playing at the same standard as the AIL in Ireland. (c) The National Guard.

Furthermore, at the 7s European Championships and World Cup in 2008 and 2009, when Ireland were eventually knocked out and encouraged to walk their lap of honour, in spite of never having played these circuits before, there were thousands of fans in the stadiums waving the green, white and gold of Ireland. Ireland is a popular country worldwide and no more so within the festival atmosphere of a 7s tournament. A touring Irish side would offer massive financial windfall in terms of Irish kit sold and the potential for an Irish stop on the IRB circuit.

The IRFU’s current stance is that they are trying to promote 7s from a grass root level with provincial 7s tournaments. These have been a flop. They’ve been hosted the weekend after the club league has finished, have seen little, if any, first choice club players playing and most of the top clubs have not even entered teams. Players are not motivated to play if they don’t see potential for success with shabbily run tournaments on the weekend after a long season and no national team to aspire to. It’s a disservice to Irish rugby players that there is an Olympic sport at their doorstep but they are not being given the opportunity to represent their country.

The top 7s countries, such as England and New Zealand, have national 7s series’ that top club players are motivated to play in because they know, if they’re good enough, they’ll be selected for the national side and possibly go on to gain professional contracts. Whether it’s seen as a viable option in itself or a feeder system for professional Irish teams, the potential for the success of 7s in Ireland is endless. To promote 7s in Ireland, a team needs to be entered in the World Series for even 2 or 3 legs a year.

That would give young Irish players a carrot to chase, a reason to take part in provincial tournaments and pick up vital competitive 7s experience with the chance of actually being scouted and picked for their country. As the IRB Series ends in London this weekend, the goal for the IRFU has to be to enter a team in as many of the circuit’s legs next year as possible.

Final food for thought, a list of senior Ireland internationals who have also played for the Irish 7s team: Eric Elwood, Mick Galway*, Paddy Johns, Denis McBride, Vinnie Cunningham, Alain Rolland, Richard Wallace*, Jonathon Bell, David Humphreys, Denis Hickie*, Niall Woods, Eric Miller*, Niall Malone, Ben Cronin, Kieron Dawson, Aidan McCullen, Conor McPhillips, Matt Mostyn, David Quinlan, James Topping, Niall Ronan, Tomás O’Leary*, Kieran Campbell, Felix Jones, Darren Cave, Brian Carney, Ian Keatley, Keith Earls* and Chris Henry (* = Lions Tourist).

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Get following the Shamrock Warriors on Twitter – @ShamrockW7s

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Photos courtesy: Chris Dickey, landrovermena, The National Guard.

8 responses to “The Plight of Irish 7s

  1. RoryO'Kane_Raz_

    As you say there is no excuse for not playing. Would Alex Cuthbert have broke onto the scene for Wales if he wasn’t playing 7’s? No, he got a blues contract on the back of his impressive 7’s performance and the rest is history

    there’s no reason why players like, Andrew Conway, Darren Huson, Ivan Dineen, Jordi Murphy and Chris Cochrane couldn’t play regular 7’s rugby as well as getting the odd game during the international windows. It would be more benifical for them (representing their country at a highlevel infront of big crowds) than playing AIB or A rugby.

    Irish rugby’s conservatism again has hindered its chances of development, not only to we no give youth a chance much less than in anyother country bar maybe france, we have the most conservative coach in world rugby! We need to change this stance. Remember of the so called golden generation, how many were were thrown in at the deep end by Gatland, BoD before he even played for leinster, D’Arcy aged 19. Shaggy, Wallace, Hayes Easterbuy, and RoG all making their debuts on the same day.

  2. Mike Slattery

    Thanks Cian for the clarity, there is no argument not to have an Irish International 7’s squad. The benefits are many and obvious but unfortunately we are dealing with the IRFU. Many other now successful sections of irish rugby had to wait many years until the IRFU eventually saw the light and benefits. Unfortunately the IRFU are not leaders but followers.

  3. didnt david corkery play 7s as well?

  4. Peter O'Leary

    I am not sure it takes into account the level of preparation that is needed to play in the sevens series and you cannot simply opt in and out of certain legs.
    The real cost for sevens is the contracting and preparation of the team before you get to the tournaments. Can we really expect amateur players with jobs to give up eight weeks of their lives (presuming that their employers let them) to take part. And this is not even taking into account the number of training camps/sessions they would have to do. You HAVE to go down the contracting root to do it right, which is a real cost issue.
    The existing professional players would also then have to be taken.out of their provinces for extended periods. Is that helping the provinces in remaining competitve?
    The club sevens competitions will certainly have to move to accomodate the players and clubs better, but it just shows that Ireland has never had a sevens culture or history, so it will take time.
    It is a numbers game from both a financial and player perspecitve. Do we really want to risk the success and strength of the provinces by taking €1-2m out of their budgets (thats what it would need to get a full time squad together)
    The IRB have not even made up their minds about how qualifying will take place for the Rio games. Do we have to follow other countries with larger playing numbers and different circumstances (economic, state and olmypic organisation support) then Ireland like lemmings. Everybody says the Irish system is an enviable one, so maybe we should recognise it.

    • Mike Slattery

      Thankfully Peter O’Leary is not in a position to influence those who have pushed irish rugby forward in the last 15 years. If he was we would never venture to gain. Rugby is now popular and the opportunity is being lost to enter into the 7’s arena. Numbers is an issue where we continue to allow large numbers of schools, college and club players walk away from the XV man game every year. 7’s is an option we cannot ignore any longer. Some of Peter’s comments are very similar to those we heard in the past about Woman’s Rugby, Tag Rugby and Youths Rugby. There will always be obstacles to overcome. We should put the same effort, support and organisational structures around a 7’s and continue to be envied by all.

  5. Rory, agreed! There are 100s of internationals who’ve first played 7s – thinking back to even the likes of Lomu and Cullen but also present day internationals like Julien Malzieu and Hosea Gear are firm advocates of the 7s game. In NZ, 7s is seen as a feeder for pro contracts. If you’re a top player but you don’t make a Super Rugby team then you’re liable to be picked up for the 7s circuit.

    As for young players such as the ones you’ve mentioned, I think it would be a great use of the funding going into academies to have players who aren’t starting senior provincial to play 7s on an international stage. 99% of those involved in last 7s WC for Ireland are now on professional contracts.

    Rory, Mike and Jonesy, the IRFU have been accused of conservatism but to be fair a lot of young players are getting chances when their good enough. They’re stance is that they are in debt over the AVIVA stadium and won’t fund anything that doesn’t see direct income back – here’s an article quoting Philip Browne to that effect:

    http://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/irfu-unable-to-bail-out-clubs-or-fund-sevens-team-insists-browne-3072150.html

  6. Peter, I take your points on board and I know that it won’t be a simple solution. At this stage, Ireland would not be allowed in all 8 legs of the IRB series, funding and preparation would only need to be for 3/4 legs at first. However, it needs to be done as soon as possible in order to have a system adequately prepared in the next 4 years. Ireland have the potential to win an Olympic medal in Rio and this should be exploited – like all other athletes, preparation for Rio starts this September!

    Amateur athletes and G.A.A. players (with jobs) take far more than 8 weeks of their year to participate and a place at the Olympic games would surely be worth this commitment for any aspiring 7s player. The carrot of a national team would make the national 7s series far more competitive and would mean they could also be used as part of this preparation.

    As for provincial players, there should be a pool of young players who are not playing for provincial first teams that can be selected from for 7s – I don’t think that 3/4 academy/development players from each province is going to make them less competitive – they are already the best club teams in Europe. Developing a culture will take time but my point is that it starts with a national team that players can aspire to. That is how it has worked so well in developing 7s countries like Kenya, Portugal, Canada and the US – their national 7s series’ have spawned off the success of their national teams.

    I’m not sure who the “other” countries with larger playing numbers are that you speak of – England, South Africa and France are the only countries with a higher player base as can be seen below:

    http://tinyurl.com/3e6v5oo

  7. Pingback: The Plight of Irish Sevens Rugby | #PositiveVibes

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