Their historic achievements at the London Sevens tournament at Twickenham over the weekend made many sit up and take notice of the Ireland Men’s Sevens squad, and redoubtable forward Harry McNulty is firmly focused on gaining core team status for the 2019/20 season.
After falling to eventual winners Japan at the semi-final stage of April’s World Series qualifier in Hong Kong, Ireland have bounced back brilliantly to retain their Moscow 7s title, starting the Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix Series with a bang, and they followed up with a historic bronze medal finish in London.
It is the first time an invitational team has reached the Cup semi-finals in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, their landmark run seeing them claim the scalps of Spain, the USA and hosts England who are currently ranked 13th, fifth and sixth respectively. Over the two days they had a very respectable average of 19.83 points and 3.17 tries per game.
Harry McNulty and Mark Roche’s association with the IRFU Men’s Sevens Programme goes right back to the 2015 ‘originals’ who won Rugby Europe Division C, the first step on getting Ireland back up to elite level in Europe and challenging for a World Series berth. To play in a series event at Twickenham was a dream come true for the 25-year-old pair.
It’s really hard to put into words,” admitted McNulty, speaking to Sky Sports following the dramatic 21-19 bronze final victory over England. “I started off in Bosnia (with the team in 2015), we’ve come a long way and we were unfortunate to lose in the semi-finals in Hong Kong. This is where we want to be.
“To have that opportunity to come play in Twickenham and come away with a medal is absolutely incredible. I don’t know what to say, I’ve just had the best time ever.”
McNulty’s father, who was at Twickenham to witness Ireland’s heroics, passed on a love of rugby and Sevens, in particular, to his Bahrain-born son having lined out at the Hong Kong Sevens himself during his own playing days. Six starts and two tries (against Spain and Wales) are only scratching the surface when it comes to how effective Harry was in the green jersey last Saturday and Sunday.
The dynamic UCD clubman knows the podium finish in London will count for nothing if Ireland do not go on to secure a place in next year’s Hong Kong qualifier via the European Grand Prix Series, while their packed summer schedule also includes another first for the current crop – playing at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco next month.
“We’re building. We’ve got a huge summer ahead of us. We’ve got the European Grand Prix and that’s how we get back to Hong Kong, and we want to get back there as number one seeds and go and do the job in Hong Kong after losing in the semi-finals,” he added.
“We also have the World Cup in San Francisco next month. Chile are our first game and it looks like South Africa would be the game after that if we go through, so there’s a lot to work for and a lot to play for and we’re just having the best time.”
Like McNulty, Roche has emerged as a key man for Anthony Eddy’s side in recent seasons. Ever-present at scrum half over the weekend, the former Ireland Under-20 and Lansdowne winger showed nerves of steel to land a hugely difficult match-winning conversion against England in the final seconds.
Speaking about the ups and downs of the England game, he admitted: “We were under a bit of pressure. We had a good start (going 14-0 up) and then we let them back in it. It was tough, we had to grind it out and try get back, sticking to our system.
“We got the try in the end (from Jordan Conroy) and we got the kick (to make it 21-19) and we got the ball back (from the restart) towards the end. We’re delighted, we stuck to our system and we believed we were going to do it.”
IRFU Sevens coach Stan McDowell has also been a fixture in the Ireland set-up as they have worked their way up to being Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series silver medallists, Rugby World Cup Sevens qualifiers and now London Sevens bronze medallists, which earned them 17 World Series points, putting them 16th behind European rivals Russia (25 points from nine tournaments).
Asked about the feat of reaching a London Cup semi-final, which they lost 38-12 to Olympic champions and series leaders Fiji, McDonnell acknowledged: “It’s enormous (for us). I’ve been part of this programme since it started five years ago – the men’s kicked off three-and-a-half years ago – and everything was put in place, the planning, to get us on the World Series.
“I know we had some disappointment in Hong Kong, but we wanted to come here (to London) as preparation for the World Cup and also to show the world that we’re serious about this and that we can perform and be competitive.
“We’ve got to say thank you to the provincial Academies in Ireland, we’ve had long-established professional pathway and a lot of these guys come through the Academies and play underage national football. We produce good footballers. We can’t applaud the players enough, they were excellent at times, controlling the kick-offs, controlling the tempo, and we have speed and footwork and we used that to great effect.”
Eddy’s charges have a second chance to gain top tier experience as the invitational team for the final World Series tournament of the 2017/18 campaign in Paris next weekend. Click here to buy Paris Sevens tickets.
The back-to-back Moscow 7s champions will be in action in Marcoussis in France for the second round of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series on June 30-July 1, and the following week they compete at the third round in Exeter (July 7-8).
The Ireland Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams will both compete at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco over the weekend of July 20-22 at AT&T Park. RWC Sevens tickets are available here. The final round of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series takes place in Lodz, Poland on September 8-9.
The Ireland Sevens jerseys are available to buy online here from Elverys Intersport, official sports retailer of the IRFU.