The Ireland Men’s Sevens squad are gearing up to compete at the Hong Kong 7s this weekend. For the players taking to the field over the three-day tournament, the goal is to win the competition outright and claim a place on next season’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Ireland feature in Pool G in Hong Kong, lining up alongside Uruguay, Jamaica and the Cook Islands. Former core team Japan will play Uganda, Chile and Georgia in Pool E, and Papua New Guinea, who recently competed on the World Series for two events as an invitational side, face Germany, hosts Hong Kong and Zimbabwe in Pool F.
Anthony Eddy’s men kick off the Hong Kong 7s tomorrow against the Cook Islands at 5.20am Irish time, before taking on Jamaica in their second and final game on day 1 (8.18am Irish time). Saturday sees Ireland wrap up the pool stages against Uruguay and the first round of knockout matches takes place that evening. The semi-finals and final are down for decision on Sunday.
With little known about the Jamaica and Cook Islands teams, there is an element of the unknown for day 1, but if Ireland can stick to their game-plans they should be in a positive place for their final, and arguably toughest, pool game against Uruguay on Saturday.
A good showing in the pool would send Ireland through to the quarter-finals on day 2, and from there it is knockout rugby. The tournament will be a big challenge, as the likes of Chile, Germany, Hong Kong and Japan all have the potential to pull off some big performances and results.
Having started this journey in Bosnia back in the summer of 2015, it has been a successful three years for the IRFU Sevens Programme, as Ireland have climbed the Rugby Europe Sevens ladder, going from Division C to the Grand Prix Series (the top tier in Europe) in that space of time. Along the way they have picked up a number of trophies and also qualified for the Sevens Rugby World Cup, which takes place in San Francisco this July.
Mark Roche and Harry McNulty were both in that original panel in Bosnia and the experienced duo have been selected as part of the 13-man squad for Hong Kong. Roche, who has also worn the green jersey at Under-18, Under-20 and Club International levels, is happy with how well things have gone for the side, but knows that the biggest test lies ahead.
“It’s been a terrific journey so far with this team. From our first competition in Bosnia to playing in places like Chile, Uruguay, Dubai and across the length and breadth of Europe, we’ve had some great experiences both on and off the field,” he said. “But, from the very start of this programme, the goal has been to reach the qualifier in Hong Kong and then look to progress to the World Series.”
The 25-year-old has lined out with a wide group of players over the years, and he believes that the spirit and willingness to play for one another is a reason that the Ireland Sevens squad have succeeded in their goals to date.
“Several players have come in and out of the Sevens programme since we started three years ago, some are now regularly playing for their provinces and some have been capped for the Ireland Men’s 15s team, but over the years, we’ve built up great camaraderie on and off the field,” added Roche.
“One of the special things about the sport of Sevens is that you simply have to play for one another on the field – it’s you and six other guys on the pitch and it’s all about working together as one, and it’s 12 guys in the squad so it’s all about gelling together as a team.”
Looking ahead to the weekend, Roche feels that the team have a really good chance of claiming the prize, acknowledging: “Everyone who’s been involved from players to management to backroom staff are all in it chasing the same goal. We’ve been working really hard towards this weekend. We’ve put our game-plans together and we know what we need to do.
“It’s six games that we have to win. Six games and then we are on the World Series next year. Everyone is feeling positive and looking forward to the challenge, so now it’s just about going out and getting our job done.”
The Ireland squad features five players who played at the 2016 World Rugby Under-20 Championship in Manchester, where the James Ryan-captained Ireland U-20s finished as runners-up to England. Will Connors, Shane Daly, Hugo Keenan, Terry Kennedy and Jimmy O’Brien all featured during that tournament and will have gained good experience playing in a high-pressure environment.
Also part of the squad in Hong Kong are captain Billy Dardis and Ian Fitzpatrick who, along with McNulty, competed at the Olympic Repechage in Monaco in 2016, while Roche has been a part of the programme since it kicked off in 2015.
20-year-old Ulster native Robert Baloucoune will look to use his pace to create opportunities for the side, and he also has an eye for the try-line. John O’Donnell’s work-rate will be needed throughout the gruelling tournament, while Dublin University’s Bryan Mollen has demonstrated great strength and physicality over a number of tournaments this season and has the ability to interest more than one defender, creating space for his team-mates in the process.
The IRFU’s Director of Sevens Rugby, Anthony Eddy, Ireland Sevens coach Stan McDowell and team manager James Topping have all been on this journey for a number of years and it has all been leading towards this tournament at the Hong Kong 7s. Six wins away from a place on the World Series, it’s been a long journey but a very rewarding one, which hopefully will have a fitting finish at Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday.
The Hong Kong 7s qualifier games will be streamed live on the World Rugby Sevens Series Facebook page: www.facebook.com/worldrugby7s/.
IRELAND MEN’S SEVENS Squad (2018 World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier – Hong Kong 7s, Hong Kong Stadium, Friday, April 6-Sunday, April 8):
Robert Baloucoune (Enniskillen/Ballymena/Ulster) *
Will Connors (UCD/Leinster) *
Shane Daly (Cork Constitution/Munster) *
Billy Dardis (UCD) (capt)
Ian Fitzpatrick (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Hugo Keenan (UCD/Leinster)
Terry Kennedy (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
Harry McNulty (UCD)
Bryan Mollen (Dublin University) *
Jimmy O’Brien (UCD/Leinster)
John O’Donnell (Lansdowne)
Mark Roche (Blackrock College)
13th man: Foster Horan (Lansdowne) *
* Denotes uncapped player
WORLD RUGBY SEVENS SERIES QUALIFIER – HONG KONG 7s:
IRELAND FIXTURES –
Friday, April 6
Ireland v Cook Islands, Hong Kong Stadium, 12.20pm local time/5.20am Irish time
Ireland v Jamaica, Hong Kong Stadium, 3.18pm local time/8.18am Irish time
Saturday, April 7
Ireland v Uruguay, Hong Kong Stadium, 9.22am local time/2.22am Irish time
Sunday, April 8
SEMI-FINALS & FINAL