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.
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.
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).
Get following the Shamrock Warriors on Twitter – @ShamrockW7s