Just 12 weeks after being assembled, the Irish Women’s 7s team have achieved their goal of qualification for the 2013 World Cup. For once, the IRFU took the initiative and they must be congratulated. However, the biggest plaudits should go to this talented group of players and their coach Jon Skurr. To have achieved such excellence in so short a time is nothing short of inspirational. In a season when Ireland’s senior men’s XV has failed to impress consistently, our female players and underage teams have provided much positivity.
An interprovincial blitz at the start of April was the beginning of the journey, allowing newly appointed Women’s Sevens Coach Jon Skurr to cast an eye over the talent available to him. Skurr led the Men’s Sevens Team to the 2009 World Cup in Dubai, a squad that included guys like Felix Jones, James Coughlan and Paul Marshall. Gemma Crowley was brought in as Manager, having performed the same role with the fifteen-a-side squad. Other staff, like Munster Academy S&C coach Ross Callaghan, were brought on board to provide their expertise.
Following that blitz trial, Skurr picked a squad of 21 players to move forward with. Each of the four provinces was represented, along with several Exiles. The entire process was well planned out, with a series of Sevens events targeted, building up to Moscow last weekend. The first tournament was the Kinsale Sevens on the first weekend of May. Under the team name Irish Lightning, an Irish squad of 13 players won the tournament, winning every single game and racking up some big scores. Importantly, a number of other players from the 21-woman squad played with other teams in Kinsale, picking up vital game time. A good start, but the standard would only increase.
That certainly proved to be the case at the Amsterdam Sevens two weeks later. Again, a squad of 13 was selected under the moniker Irish Lightning but the Irish had a difficult first day, losing to Canada and Spain. They picked things up for the final fixture of the day, beating France 19-12. That put Skurr’s side into the Plate competition the next day. A hard-fought win over Germany was followed by an excellent 26-0 victory over Wales. That earned them a 7th-placed final against France, where a Lynne Cantwell try made the difference in a 7-5 triumph.
Two tournaments down, and encouraging signs all round. The final preparation for the European qualifiers came the following weekend at the Rugby Rocks Sevens tournament in London. Irish Lightning‘s momentum continued to grow with wins over the Welsh and Austrian national teams before meeting Wooden Spoons in the final. One of the most successful women’s sevens teams around over the last two years, Wooden Spoons would have fancied their chances. But the Irish team’s swift development was evident as they won 26-14 and gave an impressive performance.
The speed at which the Irish team adapted to the sevens game is testament to the hard work of the players, as well as Skurr. Obviously, plenty of the 15-a-side international players would have played sevens before coming together, but the high level to which they so quickly developed is incredible. That development was clear at the first official FIRA/AER qualifying event in Ghent on the first weekend of June. Ireland came into the tournament knowing that they needed a top-two finish to advance to the second qualifying event in Moscow.
The manner in which they achieved that was nothing short of spectacular. The 13-woman squad won all six of their games without conceding a single point. No other team even got close to them as the Irish racked up an aggregate score of 249-0. A superb performance all round, but Skurr would have been keen to keep the players’ feet on the ground. The achievements in Ghent were highly encouraging, but the standard would of course step up another level in Moscow at this weekend’s qualifying event. Ireland would need a top five finish to guarantee qualification for the 2013 Sevens World Cup.
The Irish team got off to a strong start with a 17-5 win over Italy before a 14-12 loss to a strong Netherlands side. That made the final pool game against Switzerland a must-win, and Ireland bounced back in the best possible way with a 43-0 victory. That result ensured a place in the Cup/Plate quarter-finals and meant Skurr’s team were in the top eight at least. They were given a difficult draw against Russia, who were 3 wins from 3 at that point. The hosts proved too strong and Ireland went down 27-0.
All was not lost though. With Russia into the Cup semi-finals, it meant that a sixth-place finish for Ireland would be enough to earn World Cup qualification (Russia will host the World Cup, so they didn’t take one of the 5 qualifying spots). The Plate semi-final now became all or nothing for the Irish. Their determination was evident as they beat Ukraine 17-0 despite losing both Jennifer Murphy and Joy Neville to the sin bin for 2 minutes each. Another superb effort and World Cup qualification is secured. The measure of how far this squad has come is that they were probably disappointed to lose 31-7 to the Netherlands in the Plate final.
It’s a fantastic achievement and a real boost for those who believe that Sevens has been undervalued in Ireland in recent years. Having seen how hard several of this Irish Women’s Sevens squad train and work at their skills, I can’t say their success has come as a big surprise. These players give just as much time and effort as their male peers despite getting no monetary reward. This qualification is a celebration of playing for the joy of it and the love of representing Ireland.
Success brings support and I’m certain that this achievement will bring more interest to women’s rugby, both in sevens and the 15-woman code. The IRFU’s decision to back the Irish Women’s Sevens squad looks like it will pay off in a big way. We’re quick to criticise their failings, so we must credit this success. However, the major congratulations go to the women who made the difference on the pitch. Here’s hoping for much more success and support to come for women’s rugby in Ireland.