Jon Skurr coached the men’s team through to the Bowl final at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai. Four years on, he has been tasked with guiding the Ireland Women through their debut Rugby World Cup Sevens appearance in Moscow.
The eyes of the rugby world will be on the Russian capital for the next few days as the leading men’s and women’s teams compete for Rugby World Cup Sevens honours.
Almost a year to the day of their qualification for the tournament, Jon Skurr’s Ireland squad underlined their rapid progress in the shorter, quicker form of the game by finishing fifth in the recent FIRA-AER European Sevens Grand Prix Series.
This follows their Bowl final success in Hong Kong and Plate victories in London and Guangzhou, China as a number of Ireland’s 2013 Grand Slam-winning squad continued on the trophy trail – including Sevens captain Claire Molloy.
Molloy and her team-mates get their World Cup Sevens campaign underway on Saturday morning, facing two established Sevens teams in South Africa and Australia at Gorodok Stadium.
The Australians are the reigning World Cup Sevens champions – Ireland secured a confidence-boosting 15-14 win over them in Guangzhou – while the South Africans reached the semi-finals four years ago.
Ireland wrap up Pool B in the afternoon against China in front of what is sure to be a big crowd at Luzhniki Stadium, the former Olympic venue which is the main ground for the tournament.
Speaking to RTÉ 2fm’s ‘Game On’ programme, Molloy said: “Everyone’s just really excited to be here. It’s a tough group, we’ve got two big rugby nations in Australia and South Africa, and China are a relatively unknown side – we don’t know what they will produce but they’ll definitely be very good athletes.
“The Australians and South Africans have been around the Sevens circuit for a while. They have strong physical ball carriers, they get a good line-speed up. We’ll be very heavily penalised if we don’t support our ball carriers in the game.
“They’re tough physical outfits, both of them, and we’re going to have to up to the challenge at the breakdown.”
Like the Galway native, Skurr knows the girls in green will relish the opportunity to test themselves on a global stage especially given their high rate of progress from tournament to tournament.
“We’re delighted to be here. The whole experience around any Rugby World Cup, be it fifteens or Sevens, is an amazing experience that you remember for the rest of your life,” said the former Ireland Under-21 international.
“The plan started a year ago and we’ve made tremendous progress – sometimes we have to take a step back and look at the progress and realise we’ve done really well just to be here.
“I think our expectations are higher than that. We come into (the World Cup) confident that if we perform to our ability that we’ll be able to put on a good show. That’s what we’re looking for.
“It’s about putting in performances rather than predicting results. We’re definitely excited to be here and it’s a unique experience out here in Moscow.”
The Irish squad contains several of the Grand Slam winners – including Ireland’s most-capped player Lynne Cantwell – and they will be looking for big performances this weekend as they continue on their Olympic Sevens programme for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“It’s a building block for us. We’re putting in a development pathway to up-skill players to get them to Rio in 2016. There’s lot of things to happen before that,” explained Skurr.
“But playing in top quality venues against international teams is a real learning curve and it’s helping the girls develop as rugby players, and hopefully that will have benefits across the board – obviously giving players exposure to high level experiences that they don’t always get.
“Our third pool game is in the Luzhniki Stadium where the Moscow Olympics was held, and those sort of experiences are massive for players and it’s really exciting.”
Ireland’s first appearance at the Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens comes at the end of undoubtedly the most productive and rewarding season in Irish Women’s rugby history.
A first Triple Crown, Six Nations title and Grand Slam for the 15-a-side team, who earned their maiden win over England along the way, was swiftly followed by the IRFU’s commitment to a long term Women’s Sevens programme.
With support from the Irish Sports Council, the scheme includes an investment of over €;1.1 million per annum to create a high performance squad with the aspiration to qualify and successfully compete in Rio in 2016.
The latter is a clear goal for Skurr and with a surge in female players signing up for the IRFU’s Volkswagen Tag rugby programme – the likes of Grand Slam winners Nora Stapleton and Ashleigh Baxter started their rugby careers playing Tag – the hope is that there will be a wider player pool to pick from from next year onwards.
“The fifteen-a-side team did amazingly well this year. I was at quite a few of the games in the Six Nations. It’s brought a success that the girls deserve,” added Skurr.
“The amount of commitment and efforts all the girls put in between the fifteens and Sevens squads, a number of them overlap, is amazing. They hold down jobs and study as well as do this.
“I think the support they’ve been given now justifies the effort they’ve put in. We’re seeing the results now, we’ve had a successful Sevens campaign already and the fifteen-a-side team won the Grand Slam which was an amazing achievement.
“It’s starting to build strength in both forms of the game and players are developing as individuals. Hopefully it’s going to grow the game, attract people in from other sports and attract people just to watch rugby.
“The growth of the Women’s game is really important. The player numbers are very small compared to Gaelic football. It would be nice to take more girls in to experience how great rugby can be and the opportunities to travel around the world that we get whilst playing rugby.”
Another member of the Grand Slam-winning side, second row Sophie Spence, has taken to Six Nations rugby and international Sevens like a duck to water.
With her mother hailing from Belfast, Spence was eligible to play for Ireland and she successfully graduated via the IRFU Exiles route – a valuable pathway that continues to produce some excellent international players for Ireland at underage and senior level.
Spence says that playing in a Rugby World Cup is ‘something that everyone who plays rugby dreams about’ and she is ‘very excited’ about being a part of Ireland’s mission to Moscow. Click here to view a short interview with Sophie on the eve of the tournament.
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