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Conroy: All The Hard Work Paid Off For Us

Conroy: All The Hard Work Paid Off For Us

Although there were mixed emotions having narrowly missed out on the European title, the Ireland Men’s Sevens squad still had broad smiles as they celebrated their qualification for the Sevens World Cup and World Series Repechage next year.

Having rapidly climbed up the Rugby Europe ladder over the last two years, rising from Division C in June 2015 to silver medallists in the Grand Prix Series at the weekend, the IRFU Men’s Sevens programme has made tremendous progress under the direction of Anthony Eddy.

They will broaden their horizons next season with those mouth-watering trips to Hong Kong and San Francisco, firstly chasing a World Rugby Sevens Series berth in April and then looking to mix it with the series regulars at the World Cup in twelve months’ time.

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There was a fair amount of rebuilding to be done this season, with the skills they honed in the Sevens game helping captain Tom Daly and others to advance with their provinces in 15s. In the meantime, Eddy’s charges benefited from the growing influence of Harry McNulty and newly-appointed skipper Billy Dardis, as well as the emergence of the likes of Jordan Conroy and Hugo Keenan.

The 23-year-old Conroy has perhaps been the story of Ireland’s Sevens season. His natural speed, coupled with an ever-improving rugby ability, make him an electric player to watch. The crowd at the Exeter 7s lapped him up, as did former England Sevens captain Rob Vickerman who chose Conroy the Mitsubishi Motors Player of the Tournament.

“Conroy was such a force throughout, the glue in the team, the standout performer for the whole weekend and he’s entertained en masse,” Vickerman told Sky Sports, whose live coverage of events at Sandy Park allowed a wider audience to see the Buccaneers speedster in action.

“He’s got pace, he’s got balance, he’s got poise, he’s so humble and he’s someone who has not been playing the game for long, so it’s phenomenal to see how well he’s done this weekend. He was pushed very close (for the award) by the warrior inside him, number 4 McNulty.”

The 2016/17 campaign was certainly one to remember for Conroy as his 18 tries helped Buccaneers to win Ulster Bank League Division 1B and promotion to the top flight. The flying winger, who also played for Connacht Eagles in the British & Irish Cup, was deservedly honoured as the Connacht Rugby Club Player of the Year.

He continued his excellent try-scoring exploits on the European Sevens circuit. After touching down just once in Moscow, he really went up through the gears in the last three tournaments during which he ran in 16 tries – six in Lodz, four in Clermont, and six in Exeter.

Conroy told Sky Sports after yesterday’s knockout stages: “It’s been a long hard process. We’ve had two goals set for us, which was to make Hong Kong and San Francisco next year, and we achieved both of those goals so we’re pretty happy – the team management, everyone is really happy with the progress we’ve made.

“It is disappointing to not come out as European champions, which would have put the icing on the cake. but, no, we’re happy all round. We’re really delighted with the results and all the hard work finally paid off.”

Asked how Ireland have achieved so much at European level in a short timeframe, the Tullamore man replied: “I guess it’s the player base. The players we have come from a really good rugby background. It’s just natural ability and the hard work we’ve put in through the years, progressing from Division 3 and 2 to last year and to the Grand Prix.

“It’s a challenge (now to reach the World Series). If we get through Hong Kong, we’ll look forward to hit all the heavyweights and see what we can do. We’ll try our best to be one of the core teams, so from here on, it’s just work, work, work!”

There seems to be plenty of scope for the wider Ireland Sevens training group to develop further in the coming seasons and ensure that the graph continues to rise. Eleven of the players who lined out in Exeter are aged between 20 and 24, with the 21-year-old Keenan – one of the players of the series – and Jimmy O’Brien (20) scoring 10 tries between them at Sandy Park.

As a comparison, the Great Britain squad that were runners-up to Fiji at last year’s Olympics had an average age of 26, with players ranging from 23 up to 31. Blessed with enviable pace and an eye for the try-line, Conroy and the Sevens game seem a natural fit – and with the promise of much more to come in 2018.

“I started off with athletics from the age of 8 to 14. Gave that up because I got pretty bored of it, then I went into soccer and then about five years ago I started playing rugby,” he explained when asked about his sporting background.

“Within the last year-and-a-half, I’ve been really progressing from club level and getting drafted into the Irish Sevens, so I’m really glad of where I’m at right now. The speed has always been there, I’m not going to lie!”

His team-mate McNulty is another player who has shone in the short format, showing huge work-rate and game intelligence around the pitch and coming up with some vital plays in both defence and attack. It will be extra special for the Bahrain-born UCD clubman to play for Ireland in Hong Kong as his father played and scored there for the Bahrain Warblers in the past.

Delighted with the squad’s progress this summer, McNulty said: “Anthony wants a simple game, he knows exactly what he wants from his players. He gives us the confidence, when we’re in training he tells us what we do wrong and what we do right. There’s black and white, so that when we go out on that pitch we have no questions over what we’re doing.

“The best thing for us (from the Rugby Europe series) is that we know we can compete against the best teams here. Russia have a full-strength side and we can compete with the likes of them, so that’s brilliant.”

IRELAND’S LEADING TRY SCORERS – 2017 GRAND PRIX SERIES:

17 – Jordan Conroy
12 – Hugo Keenan
11 – Harry McNulty
8 – Ian Fitzpatrick
7 – Nick Timoney
6 – Fionn Carr, John O’Donnell

IRELAND’S LEADING POINTS SCORERS – 2017 GRAND PRIX SERIES:

100 – Billy Dardis
85 – Jordan Conroy
64 – Mark Roche
60 – Hugo Keenan
55 – Harry McNulty