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Ireland Suffer Hong Kong Heartbreak With Semi-Final Exit

Ireland Suffer Hong Kong Heartbreak With Semi-Final Exit

Ireland’s dreams of competing as a World Sevens Series core team next season were dashed by a last-gasp 12-7 semi-final defeat to Japan, the eventual Hong Kong 7s champions. Kameli Raravou Soejima’s breakaway try in the final play ensured a gut-wrenching end to the qualifying tournament for Anthony Eddy’s men.

The first two days of the World Series qualifier had gone to plan for Ireland, who topped Pool G with wins over the Cook Islands (41-5), Jamaica (26-0) and Uruguay (36-0), and won their first knockout game 38-5 against Zimbabwe during yesterday’s night session.

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Much stiffer competition lay ahead in the form of semi-final opponents Japan, who were a World Series core team as recently as 2016/17. Ireland unfortunately went into the high-stakes encounter without key forward Harry McNulty, one of the ‘originals’ from the 2015 Rugby Europe Division C title-winning side. He watched from the sidelines after rolling his ankle yesterday.

It was a ruck penalty apiece early on, both sides defending well with Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien probing for openings on halfway. It was a real arm wrestle under the searing sun, a long passage of play seeing O’Brien and Terry Kennedy almost manufacture a telling break before the latter threw a loose pass.

A high tackle by Kameli Raravou Soejima invited Ireland forward nearing half-time, but the Japanese managed to steal the lineout just outside their 22 and were content to kick the ball dead off the resulting scrum as they regrouped at the end of a breathless opening seven minutes.

The tension-filled semi-final finally saw a score on the resumption. The long levers of Josefa Lilidamu won the restart kick, Japan stretched the defence by attacking wide before swinging play back to the right where Kosuke Hashino slipped out of O’Brien’s tackle and got up to dive over. Katsuyuki Sakai’s radar was on for the conversion and a 7-0 lead.

The power and flair of Japan’s South Sea Islanders, with four Fijians and a Tongan among their squad, had Ireland pinned back until replacements Robert Baloucoune and Bryan Mollen got the attack firing again. Keenan weaved up into the 22, and after Japan leaked a penalty, the ball was moved wide where O’Donnell blew a gilt-edged chance when knocking on Fitzpatrick’s pass with the try-line in his sights.

Nonetheless, Ireland put pressure on the resulting scrum, which had to be reset, and with Mark Roche hounding scrum half Masahiro Nakano, he out-muscled him for possession and scrambled over from a metre out for a crucial try with two minutes remaining. Roche coolly right-footed the conversion through the posts to bring the men in green level.

It was a grandstand finish with all on the line, and the tiny margins in Sevens rugby were there for all to see when Roche won the race to his own chip over the top but knocked on after the ball had bounced back at him off the right hand post. Ireland were left to rue that near miss, with 14 seconds left.

A tight penalty call against O’Donnell, who went for a rip in the tackle, allowed Japan to press for a match winner past the hooter, and Soejima proved to be their hero, a couple of missed tackles allowing him through and he had enough speed and strength to finish off to the left of the posts, despite the best efforts of Baloucoune and Kennedy. The TMO confirmed the grounding and Ireland’s qualification hopes were over.

Ireland’s 12-man squad in Hong Kong had an average age of 22 and the IRFU Men’s Sevens Programme still has plenty to play for in the coming months, returning to the European circuit as they look to match or better last year’s runners-up finish in the Grand Prix Series. Three of the four European legs take place between May and early July, ensuring an ideal block of preparation in advance of the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in San Francisco (July 20-22).

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World Rugby Sevens Series Qualifier – Hong Kong 7s Results

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 RESULTS –

Friday, April 6

POOL G:

Ireland 41 Cook Islands 5, Hong Kong Stadium
Ireland: Tries: Jimmy O’Brien 2, Ian Fitzpatrick 2, Mark Roche, Terry Kennedy 2; Cons: Mark Roche, Billy Dardis 2

Team: John O’Donnell, Ian Fitzpatrick, Harry McNulty, Mark Roche, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Terry Kennedy.

Subs used: Billy Dardis (capt), Shane Daly, Robert Baloucoune, Bryan Mollen, Will Connors.

Ireland 26 Jamaica 0, Hong Kong Stadium
Ireland: Tries: Jimmy O’Brien, Terry Kennedy, Harry McNulty, Shane Daly; Cons: Mark Roche 3

Team: John O’Donnell, Ian Fitzpatrick, Harry McNulty, Mark Roche, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Terry Kennedy.

Subs used: Bryan Mollen, Shane Daly, Will Connors, Billy Dardis (capt), Robert Baloucoune.

Saturday, April 7

Ireland 36 Uruguay 0, Hong Kong Stadium
Ireland: Tries: Ian Fitzpatrick, Jimmy O’Brien, Terry Kennedy, Hugo Keenan, Harry McNulty, Shane Daly; Cons: Mark Roche, Billy Dardis 2

Team: John O’Donnell, Ian Fitzpatrick, Harry McNulty, Mark Roche, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Terry Kennedy.

Subs used: Billy Dardis (capt), Robert Baloucoune, Shane Daly, Will Connors, Bryan Mollen.

QUARTER-FINAL: Ireland 38 Zimbabwe 5, Hong Kong Stadium
Ireland: Tries: John O’Donnell, Hugo Keenan, Ian Fitzpatrick, Shane Daly, Terry Kennedy, Bryan Mollen; Cons: Mark Roche 3, Billy Dardis

Team: John O’Donnell, Ian Fitzpatrick, Shane Daly, Mark Roche, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Terry Kennedy.

Subs used: Robert Baloucoune, Billy Dardis (capt), Will Connors, Bryan Mollen. Not used: Harry McNulty.

Sunday, April 8

SEMI-FINAL: Japan 12 Ireland 5, Hong Kong Stadium
Ireland: Scorer: Try: Mark Roche; Con: Mark Roche

Team: John O’Donnell, Ian Fitzpatrick, Shane Daly, Mark Roche, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Terry Kennedy.

Subs used: Bryan Mollen, Robert Baloucoune. Not used: Billy Dardis (capt), Will Connors.