The Ireland Men’s Sevens squad rounded off the inaugural DHL Oktoberfest 7s with a gutsy 7th-8th place play-off win over France. With James Topping taking the coaching reins for the first time, the young Irish side acquitted themselves well against some of the leading Sevens nations in the world.
Ireland came into the Munich tournament ranked 10th of the twelve competing teams, and with some new faces on board – provincial Academy players Shane Daly, Alex McHenry and Will Connors, Dublin University’s Bryan Mollen and Skerries teenager Hugo Lennox, who recently won the Rugby Europe Sevens title with the Ireland Under-18s.
Eight members of the squad from this weekend are aged between 18 and 22, with Lennox (18) and McHenry (19) being the youngest of the lot. A number of Ireland’s Rugby Grand Prix Series silver medal-winning side also made the trip, including captain Billy Dardis, key forward Harry McNulty and Ian Fitzpatrick, who top-scored with three tries at the Olympic Stadium.
Fitzpatrick was among the scorers as Ireland ended the opening day with a 24-7 win over Chile, bouncing back from two tough defeats to eventual runners-up Fiji (33-14) and champions Australia (17-7), during they were both competitive and combative.
The knockout rounds on Saturday saw South Africa, who finished third overall, clinically dispatch Ireland 24-0 in the Cup quarter-finals. However, after going down 35-7 to Argentina, James Topping’s charges rallied superbly to win their final game 14-12 against France thanks to converted tries from Fitzpatrick and Connors.
IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora, who assisted Topping in Munich, said afterwards: “It was an important win because this is a learning curve for us. Playing the sixth game at this level over the two days, it was important for us to be able to front up. We only had eight players fit for the game against France so it was a really great effort from the guys involved.
“I think what you see here over the whole weekend proves the value of Sevens. Playing in front of a big crowd, a great occasion, having to back up back-to-back performances, getting yourself back up for a game – it’s a massive opportunity for our young players to learn.”
He added: “It’s a huge year for the IRFU Men’s Sevens programme. We’ve got the World Series qualifier in Hong Kong in April and we’ve also qualified for the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco. It’s a big year for us and we’re going to get as much out of tournaments like this as we possibly can.”
Although Fiji exerted some pressure from the kick-off, Ireland got off to a solid start in Friday’s Pool C opener with Fitzpatrick and Adam Leavy both running strongly from deep. It was the Fijians who took a third minute lead, Sevuloni Mocenacagi’s high catch seeing him go in behind the posts after some slick offloading.
Problems from the restart almost saw Fiji swoop for a second try, but Mollen led Ireland’s charge back up to halfway. Fitzpatrick again made ground along the right touchline, taking play into the Fijian 22. Loose play from the Fijians, with Daly tackling hard and pouncing on a loose ball, saw the Cork Constitution clubman feed Leavy for a simple run-in in the fifth minute with Dardis’ conversion bring Ireland level – 7-7.
Ireland’s good work leading up to half-time – a Daly tackle prevented a try and Leavy threatened to break past halfway – was undone when a clever pass drew in two defenders and sent Apenisa Cakaubalavu galloping in from the left wing for a 12-7 Fiji lead.
12 points was the margin straight from the restart as Fiji gobbled up Dardis’ kick, which was too long for his chasers, and Hugo Keenan’s missed tackle set up a break from which Banuve Tabakaucoro touched down.
A Dardis penalty kick gave Ireland some much-needed territory, John O’Donnell injecting some pace from a quick tap before Mollen’s well-won turnover and offload off the deck sent Keenan over for a try. Dardis’ crisply-struck conversion from the right reduced the arrears to 19-14 with just two minutes left.
However, Fiji’s greater experience and class told down the final stretch, Jone Koronisagana scoring an excellent individual try from his own half and turnover ball allowing Amenoni Nasilasila to step in between two defenders and add try number five just past the hooter.
O’Donnell, Connors, Mark Roche and McHenry were brought into the starting line-up for the second round encounter with Australia. Ireland were the early aggressors, Keenan competing well for the restart and Leavy ripping the ball back in a tackle before Roche had to react quickly to prevent a breakout try.
O’Donnell was twice involved in an attack that ended with his try being ruled out for a forward pass from Connors, and it was first blood to Australia when Boyd Killingworth crossed in the right corner, benefiting from Simon Kennewell’s hand-off and pass.
O’Donnell led Ireland’s response, his first-up tackle dislodging Australian possession and he retrieved it on halfway. Both sides suffered knock-ons before Ireland frustratingly let their opponents off the hook, McNulty coughing up a penalty five metres from the Australian try-line after their captain James Stannard had been sin-binned for a blatant offside.
Although thwarted by an early knock-on, Ireland began the second half in encouraging fashion with Keenan and the Cork Constitution duo of Daly and McHenry all running well. It was McHenry who unlocked the Australian defence on halfway, stepping in between two defenders and getting a lovely one-handed offload away for Leavy to run in a 10th minute try which Roche converted for a 7-5 lead.
Nonetheless, Ireland ultimately paid the price for not scoring before half-time when Australia engineered a two-try finish. Keenan was isolated after a carry, Maurice Longbottom tapping the penalty and stepping past the UCD clubman to score out wide on the left. 10-7 became 17-7 when Tim Anstee touched down to the right of the posts, Ireland competing hard at the breakdown but the victors were able to use numbers out wide.
Ireland finished day 1 against ninth-ranked Chile, with Fitzpatrick, Daly, Mollen and Dardis back in as starters. It was Fitzpatrick who opened the scoring in the second minute, a Dardis kick sitting up nicely for him to spin and outfox a covering defender to make the line.
Handling errors halted a couple of promising Irish attacks, with Keenan stopped five metres out, before Chile edged in front for half-time – 7-5 – thanks to a neatly-taken try from Marcelo Torrealba via his own kick through.
McNulty came up with Ireland’s response within a minute of the restart. He brilliantly bounced off a tackle on the Irish 10-metre line and charged through a gap, using his speed and strength to evade the chasing defender and dive in under the posts with Dardis converting for a 12-7 advantage.
A breathless passage of play, started by a ball-dislodging tackle from Dardis, saw Fitzpatrick, Roche and Daly gain good yardage before Keenan stepped away from a defender outside the Chile 22 and backed himself to score in the left corner. There was still time for a fourth try past the hooter, O’Donnell pressing from a quick tap and then McHenry picked off the base and showed a clean pair of heels to the Chilean defence for a classy seven-pointer.
With Ireland advancing to the quarter-finals as one of the best third-placed finishers, Topping remarked: “Fiji and Australia were a big step up for us and we got punished in those games when we made mistakes. But the guys will learn, and learn quickly at this level, so for us it’s fantastic to be here and to play against those sides.
“The boys are resilient. We don’t have really high-class sprinters in this team. What we do have is quite a lot of work and a lot of effort. In the second half (against Chile), the guys had to grind in and get the win in the end.”
Ireland returned to the Olympic Stadium pitch for a mouth-watering Cup quarter-final against top seeds South Africa, who brought their national Sevens Academy team to Germany. There were positive signs early on as McNulty and Mollen combined to win the kick-off and there was some incisive running from Dardis and Fitzpatrick, in particular.
Off limited possession, the South Africans were at their efficient best when Mfundo Ndhlovu stepped inside Mollen and sprinted away from the covering Dardis to score his fifth try of the tournament. The Blitzboks’ combination of power and pace was evident again when they forced a penalty in the Irish 22, tapped it and captain Dylan Sage – one of their World Series regulars – crossed to make it 12-0 for half-time.
Ireland should have scored before the break, a late flurry seeing Roche and Fitzpatrick held up but Scottish referee Sam Grove-White missed an obvious offside call against Sage close to the try-line and South Africa survived. A superb run from Roche showed promise on the restart, but South Africa’s physicality at the breakdown halted Ireland’s progress.
A break from O’Donnell had Ireland back up to halfway – only for South Africa’s well-organised defence to hold them at bay again. The Irish were still well in the game until the final few minutes when Dash Mafuma and Tythan Adams were sprung from the SA bench to score the clinching tries, the former raiding through from his own quick tap.
A fast-paced start from Argentina saw them take control of the 5th-8th place play-off, McNulty uncharacteristically falling off a tackle to allow Luciano Gonzalez break clear for a first-minute try from 40 metres out. Maximiliano Filizzola crossed in the very next phase, fending off Keenan to speed through and score in the right corner.
Dardis did well to deny Filizzola his second try, the lively Argentinian play-maker having a foot in touch, but with Fitzpatrick off the pitch receiving treatment, the South Americans seized their opportunity again when Filizzola’s kick out to the left bounced up nicely for Gonzalez to complete his brace, five minutes in.
Ireland’s decision-making was poor and they lacked their usual zip. They went into the match with ten fit players – Mollen and Leavy were ruled out with injuries – but Roche lifted his team-mates by winning a penalty at the breakdown. He raced up towards halfway and linked with Fitzpatrick on his inside shoulder, with the Lansdowne winger finishing off a much-needed try to reduce the arrears to 21-7.
Into the second half, Ireland were playing with renewed purpose with the likes of O’Donnell, Dardis and McHenry making good carries. McNulty stormed over halfway, holding a defender at arm’s length as he got his pass away but the supporting Lennox was unable to gather it almost 15 metres out from the whitewash.
The Argentinians swept downfield for Renzo Barbier to hand off McHenry and grab a 11th minute try, and their captain Franco Sabato took advantage of a missed tackle from Connors to complete the scoring with a fifth converted try in the final minute.
Ireland were severely depleted for their final outing of the weekend against France, taking on their European rivals with just one available replacement. However, with Lennox passing swiftly and accurately on his first start at scrum half, they dominated the early exchanges. After almost two minutes of well-worked possession, Fitzpatrick reached out to dot down under the posts. Daly set up the try with a clever jink and terrific offload which tied up two defenders.
Roche converted and Ireland took a 7-5 lead into half-time, France quickly responding to Fitzpatrick’s effort by setting Josias Daoudou free on the left wing. Some excellent scramble defence, including a turnover-forcing tackle from Lennox, saw Ireland keep the French out early in the second period.
Having emptied the tank in defence, Ireland rebounded with some nice footwork from Connors and Roche to take them up to halfway. McHenry made further ground and after a penalty set up a lineout in the 22, scrappy ball in midfield was turned into an 11th minute try when Connors hit the line at pace, handed off French captain Pierre-Giles Lakafia and went over unopposed. Roche converted for 14-5.
France snapped back with a seven-pointer from Jeremy Aicardi, who had the pace to finish off a quick-witted attack with 50 seconds remaining. Securing possession from the final restart was vital and the sight of McHenry gobbling it up gave his team-mates a huge boost. After some good ball retention for a couple more phases, the tireless McNulty booted the ball to touch to confirm Ireland’s hard-fought victory.
Reflecting on his Oktoberfest 7s experience, Munster Academy member Daly admitted: “It was a tough start to the competition. We were in a tough group with the two teams that reached the final, Fiji and Australia. To get the win at the end of the first day against Chile was very good, it got us through to the quarter-finals.
“Even the experienced players (in our squad) have never played teams like Fiji, Australia and South Africa before. It’s a totally different way to how the European teams play, a completely different pace. To get a win in the last game against France just ends it on a high for us. We’re just going to build on that.
“That’s our first competition of the year and we’ve a lot to work on. We’re building towards Hong Kong and hopefully we can win in Hong Kong (in April) and compete in the World Series next year.”
IRELAND MEN’S SEVENS Squad (2017 DHL Oktoberfest 7s, Olympic Stadium, Munich, Germany, Friday, September 29-Saturday, September 30):
Will Connors (UCD/Leinster)
Shane Daly (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Billy Dardis (UCD) (capt)
Ian Fitzpatrick (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Hugo Keenan (UCD/Leinster)
Adam Leavy (Galwegians/Connacht)
Hugo Lennox (MU Barnhall)
Alex McHenry (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Harry McNulty (UCD)
Bryan Mollen (Dublin University)
John O’Donnell (Lansdowne)
Mark Roche (Blackrock College)
IRELAND MEN’S SEVENS DHL Oktoberfest 7s Results –
Friday, September 29:
Pool C –
Fiji 33 Ireland 14, Olympic Stadium, Munich
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Adam Leavy, Hugo Keenan; Con: Billy Dardis
Team: Ian Fitzpatrick, Harry McNulty, Shane Daly, Bryan Mollen, Billy Dardis (capt), Adam Leavy, Hugo Keenan.
Subs: John O’Donnell, Will Connors, Hugo Lennox, Mark Roche, Alex McHenry.
Australia 17 Ireland 7, Olympic Stadium, Munich
Scorers: Ireland: Try: Adam Leavy; Con: Mark Roche
Team: John O’Donnell, Harry McNulty (capt), Will Connors, Mark Roche, Alex McHenry, Adam Leavy, Hugo Keenan.
Subs: Ian Fitzpatrick, Shane Daly, Bryan Mollen, Billy Dardis, Hugo Lennox.
Chile 7 Ireland 24, Olympic Stadium, Munich
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Ian Fitzpatrick, Harry McNulty, Hugo Keenan, Alex McHenry; Cons: Billy Dardis 2
Team: Ian Fitzpatrick, Harry McNulty, Shane Daly, Bryan Mollen, Billy Dardis (capt), Mark Roche, Hugo Keenan.
Subs: John O’Donnell, Will Connors, Hugo Lennox, Alex McHenry, Adam Leavy.
Saturday, September 30:
Cup Quarter-Final –
South Africa 24 Ireland 0, Olympic Stadium, Munich
Scorers: Ireland: –
Team: Ian Fitzpatrick, Harry McNulty, Shane Daly, Bryan Mollen, Billy Dardis (capt), Alex McHenry, Hugo Keenan.
Subs: John O’Donnell, Will Connors, Hugo Lennox, Mark Roche, Adam Leavy.
5th-8th Place Play-Off –
Ireland 7 Argentina 35, Olympic Stadium, Munich
Scorers: Ireland: Try: Ian Fitzpatrick; Con: Mark Roche
Team: John O’Donnell, Harry McNulty, Will Connors, Ian Fitzpatrick, Billy Dardis (capt), Mark Roche, Hugo Keenan.
Subs: Shane Daly, Hugo Lennox, Alex McHenry.
7th-8th Place Final –
Ireland 14 France 12, Olympic Stadium, Munich
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Ian Fitzpatrick, Will Connors; Cons: Mark Roche 2
Team: John O’Donnell, Harry McNulty (capt), Shane Daly, Ian Fitzpatrick, Hugo Lennox, Mark Roche, Alex McHenry.
Sub: Will Connors.
IRELAND MEN’S SEVENS 2017 Tournament Schedule –
Elche 7s, Elche, Spain – October 28-29
Silicon Valley 7s, San Jose, USA – November 4-5
Dubai 7s, Dubai, UAE – December 1-2
Hong Kong 7s (World Series Repechage), Hong Kong – April 7-8
Amsterdam 7s, Amsterdam, Netherlands – June 9-10
Rugby World Cup Sevens, San Francisco, USA – July 20-22