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‘It Was The Best 24 Hours Of My Life’ – Sevens Heaven In Hong Kong

‘It Was The Best 24 Hours Of My Life’ – Sevens Heaven In Hong Kong

Ireland Men's Sevens achieved World Series qualification in Hong Kong this week last year. ©INPHO/Yu Chun Christopher Wong

“The Irish dream of being a core team. It has been a four-year programme, this didn’t just happen overnight. They knew they had to go through the European system to qualify and come through the grades. They’ve done just that. Heartbreak last year and now this. It’s an incredible story. History. Get your passports ready, fellas. You’re about to stamp it with not only destinations around the world but with some pretty incredible memories.”

It’ll never get old, reliving those moments. A treasure trove of memories. Harry McNulty‘s swan dive in front of The South Stand. The work-rate and sheer determination of Foster Horan to unleash the freewheeling Jordan Conroy for the line. Big plays in a week of small margins. The touchline conversion nailed by Billy Dardis. The sight of Terry Kennedy galloping clear, the gumshield in one hand, the ball in the other. And the smile of a man who knew. No longer the nearly men. This year, the history makers.

Even now, one year on, re-watching the footage evokes a concoction of emotions. Even now, with the safety net of knowing the result and that all will be right, you’re drawn towards the edge of your seat, the heart racing that little bit faster. “Can you imagine the nerves of playing for a place on the World Sevens Series?” the commentator asks. 14 minutes. Season-defining, career-defining. High humidity at pitch level, high pressure on it. Winner takes all. For a seat at the top table, for the ultimate prize. Ireland had learned to deal with agony here before. They were not going to suffer the same fate in Hong Kong this time around.

Prologue

Behind every success story is often a tale of hardship and heartache. Ireland’s rise through the European ranks at full throttle speed was not without its challenges, but the ascent from Division C of the Rugby Europe Championship to within touching distance of the World Series hadn’t hit too many setbacks. Until Hong Kong 2018.

The manner in which Ireland lost at the semi-final stage of the World Series Qualifier tournament to Japan was agonising, and the devastating blow meant Anthony Eddy‘s side had to wait another year for their chance to secure top-tier status. But the lowest ebb can very often be the turning of the tide. An opportunity to regroup, reset, refocus. To right the wrongs, and come back stronger.

After World Series appearances in London and Paris, including the indelible third place finish at Twickenham, and a strong performance at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, there was a sense that Ireland were better equipped to deal with the challenges and pressures second time around. The focus had narrowed, their skills developed, and experience grown.

Through the words of captain Billy Dardis, Harry McNulty and Ian Fitzpatrick and contributions and insights from Team Manager James Topping, Performance Analyst Alan Walsh and Media and Communications Officer Sam O’Byrne, this is how the Ireland Men’s Sevens achieved the Holy Grail of World Series qualification this week last year.

Act I – The Pool Stages

Billy Dardis: “The build-up was actually quite calm and composed. We were obviously nervous given what had happened the previous year but that was a distant memory for us. Our training week was good, it was very tough, particularly our Tuesday and Wednesday sessions. We went very hard and I think that set us up.”

Harry McNulty: “We knew we didn’t want to experience the same feeling again at the end of the week but overall we were just focused and very confident in our own abilities. Significantly for us we had a really strong run in the build-up to Hong Kong and that had given us confidence as a team.”

James Topping: “The players had parked the heartbreak, but the experience had left us all that bit more apprehensive. It was only natural. We all knew that the difference between getting the result we were here to achieve and not was so fine. All 12 teams were vying for that same prize and there was no margin for error.”

Drawn in Pool F alongside Jamaica, Uruguay and Russia, Eddy’s side opened their campaign with a strong four-try win over Jamaica at the Hong Kong Stadium, with Foster Horan crossing twice and Jordan Conroy and John O’Donnell also going over for Ireland. But a wake-up call was around the corner in their second outing against Uruguay.

Ian Fitzpatrick: “The pool stages were a massive wake-up call in general. The previous year we had romped through to the quarter-final but after starting well against Jamaica, a draw with Uruguay left us with work to do. After that first day, we went back to the hotel knowing we needed to up our game again.”

Harry McNulty: “That Uruguay game felt like a bit of a weird movie script. I thought we felt good going into it but I’m actually struggling to describe what happened to us because it’s a bit of a blur. We scored early and were a couple of tries up, probably quite comfortable, and next thing I know they score and have a kick-off with no time left. They restart and score pretty much straight from kick-off and then have a conversion to snatch a 28-26 win. Thankfully he missed, and we got away lightly in the end.”

Billy Dardis: “I actually missed the first day as I got a vomiting bug on the Thursday night before the tournament! I spent the whole night in the bathroom distraught at how this was happening to me on this of all nights. I spent the Friday in and out of sleep in my room with the blinds closed waking up to watch the games. I just remember being very stressed and nervous watching the lads play because you’ve no control of what happens. We didn’t perform to our level and I think it was quite obvious we were pretty nervous.”

Act II – The Quarter-Final

Knowing they needed a big response in their final Pool game against Russia to ensure their passage through to the quarter-finals, Ireland turned on the style to run in five tries, including a Conroy hat-trick, to set up a last-eight tie against the same opponents later that day.

Harry McNulty: “We were under big pressure heading into that first Russia game. I remember we had a poor warm-up and were receiving an earful. But for a lot of us, it was just about getting back onto the pitch and playing again. Having that opportunity to completely forget about the last match and thankfully we got back near our best again. Very clean, smart rugby. A real team performance and it set us up well for the quarter-final.”

Ian Fitzpatrick: “Playing a team twice in one day is always an interesting prospect and we knew how dangerous Russia could be. We managed to pull away from them in the Pool stages after an early scare but a knockout game was always going to be a different challenge.”

Billy Dardis: “I just remember being incredibly nervous. It’s such a strange dynamic, coming back out to play a team you’ve beaten earlier. They’re going to be hurting and out for vengeance. There can be a lot of luck involved and if the bounce of the ball goes their way at the start of the game, it can be a long 14 minutes defending. Fortunately, it was probably our best performance of the weekend, everything clicked, and we won all our kick-offs and scored a couple of early tries. We won 47-0 and it was a big confidence boost for the final day.”

Act III – The Serious Business

Back-to-back wins over Russia on the second day in Hong Kong ensured Ireland’s passage through to the Qualifier tournament semi-finals, where they would meet familiar European foes Germany in the last four.

Alan Walsh: “We had played Germany frequently for 12-18 months leading up to that match, often coming out on the winning side but in our previous encounter during a warm-up tournament in Stellenbosch, Germany had beaten us so we knew we had to be at our best for those 14 minutes.”

Ian Fitzpatrick: “Going into the weekend Germany and ourselves were the favourites with the bookies to qualify. I remember friends and family back home telling me it was essentially the final when they were confirmed as our opponents in the semi. Although you try and stay away from that sort of talk, I think we might have gone into the game with too much emotion.”

Billy Dardis: “Yeah, it was a very big one. We both knew each other very well and while we had won most encounters against them, we knew anything could happen. They had a lot of experience in Hong Kong and were playing very well, having dismantled big contenders Chile earlier in the weekend and we unfortunately played right into their hands for the first 10 minutes of that game.”

With so much at stake, the tension on the pitch was palpable. The sides traded blows throughout a tight and cagey first half, the contest turning into the ultimate arm-wrestle. Ireland eventually broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time through Conroy, but they would have to dig deep in the second half as they faced the very real prospect of further semi-final anguish.

Harry McNulty: “They did a brilliant job at disrupting our play in every facet of the game, especially around the set-piece.  The line outs, they caused a serious amount of trouble. An area we pride ourselves on and get a lot of purchase from but we couldn’t get a rhythm flowing and it was really having an effect.”

James Topping: “They went down to six men but still managed to start the second half strongly to score two quick tries and take the lead. At that point, I did feel the anxiety rise and then they got a penalty in front of the posts, which they decided to kick at goal. They were going for the killer blow. I just remember thinking it was going to happen all over again.”

Billy Dardis: “I was standing underneath the posts thinking they have full control of this game, they’ve cracked us.”

Harry McNulty: “We were under the pump. My heart was in my mouth and I nearly couldn’t watch but thankfully for us he missed the penalty.”

Billy Dardis: “That was our lifeline. It was our 22 metre dropout with two and a half minutes minutes left on the clock. Instead of trailing by two scores, it was still only a five-point game. 10-5. We took a breath and settled ourselves. We got the kick back and scored within a few phases with some good interplay between Terry and Greg, passing back inside to myself and I scored on the right hand side 15m line. I walked back to take the conversion knowing I had to get the kick, it was a big one. I shut it out and just focused on the strike, hit it nicely and it went over, 12-10 ahead with about a minute and a half to go. Game on.”

Sam O’Byrne: “Containing your emotions is one of the big challenges of the role – you have to maintain a sense of calm as Irish supporters around the world are depending on you to provide updates of the game, and there’s also the need to remain professional on the sidelines amongst other photographers and media. But I will admit to punching the air a few times when the lads crossed for tries. You also find yourself looking up at the stadium clock more often in these sort of games – either willing for it to move faster when you’re going well, or to slow the hell down when the opposition have possession.”

Harry McNulty: “One final kick off, up by two and I knew I had to get the ball back. I get up, miss but cause enough confusion that the German pod misses as well. The ball bounces straight back into my hands and next thing Jordan is scoring in the corner with three men hanging off him. I couldn’t believe how that matched finished. A special moment and a big relief. One step closer to the dream.”

Act IV – The Final

After seeing off Germany 19-10, Ireland set up a final showdown against host nation Hong Kong for a place on the 2020 World Rugby Sevens Series. Winner takes all.

James Topping: “It was our biggest game ever, but we had always performed well in finals. I watched Hong Kong v Chile in their semi-final and it was a brutal game. Both teams were out on their feet at the finish so I thought if we could stay composed, we would have too much for them as the game went on.”

Ian Fitzpatrick: “After going into the Germany game too emotional, I think we all realised we needed to be calm going into the final. We had a good bit of time to kill before the game so lads just tried to stick to what they usually do. Everyone has a different pre-match routine and I think it was important not to change that. Some lads like to sleep, others like to listen to music and some just like to walk about and chat to other teams. We had to treat it like any other match.”

Billy Dardis: “There was a huge roar in the stadium as we ran out. We were playing the home side so there was big support for them. The stage was set. This was it. I got out there and just smiled as we got in for our normal huddle. I actually don’t remember what I said but we were calm and ready.
Once the game started it was just like any other game except the adrenaline was so high that you’re not missing any tackles, you’re going 100% into everything, nothing else matters.”

Sam O’Byrne: “I’d always position myself behind the opposition try-line as it’s the best spot to get snaps of Irish tries being scored. I’ll never forget Harry diving over for his try in-front of the South Stand for our first try in the final – the locals weren’t too impressed, but it was a crucial score to settle us and get us up and running.”

A quickfire double either side of half-time courtesy of O’Shea and Conroy extended Ireland’s lead and put Eddy’s men within touching distance of a seismic victory.

‘Adam Leavy, ball on the inside. Is this the moment that is going to send Ireland as a core team in 2020? Terry Kennedy, take a bow.’

Alan Walsh: “The analyst’s room at a World Series tournament is a respectful environment and I am always conscious of respecting other analysts who are working at the table – so I try not to show much emotion when I’m in there. However, when Terry broke free in the last minute of the game, it sealed the victory and core status for us and all the emotion came out then.”

Harry McNulty: “It was our time.”

Billy Dardis: “That was a feeling we dreamed about for so long. I remember seeing Terry scurry away with no one chasing and thinking, that’s it, it’s done. I held my hand up in the air and casually jogged after him for the conversion. I remember waiting for the shot clock to count down my conversion time and just smiling and being like – this is what it actually feels like, this is it, we’ve done it.”

James Topping: “After Terry scored, I looked to Ant beside me on the bench as usual to see if we should make any changes, but he just shut his notebook, turned to me and we shook hands. It was more relief than any joy to be honest.”

Harry McNulty: “I broke down in tears. I couldn’t control myself. Four years of hard work had finally paid off. It was an indescribable sensation and moment. To have so many families fly out and support us, that made the event so special. Being able to go and see them after, the buzz in the air was amazing. I cried some more that’s for sure!”

Act V – The Celebrations

Alan Walsh: “Those moments on the pitch after the final whistle are some of my best memories from working in rugby. Running out to celebrate with the players and staff who had worked so hard over the previous four years to make qualification happen was a special moment – especially after the hurt of 2018. Most of all I was just delighted for the players, when you see how much it meant to them. You can’t help but just be delighted of their efforts and be proud of the squad.”

Billy Dardis: “It was just pure euphoria. In my mind, there was just this eerie silence on the pitch in the seconds after the final whistle, bodies everywhere but just a moment of silence. Nothing was said, I just looked to the bench and the coaches with my hands in the air. Relief. Disbelief. Pure joy. I remember dragging Harry and Rochey off the ground in-front of me and just giving them a massive hug. The rest of the lads followed and it was just hugs all round. I’d say I hugged each of the lads twice, I didn’t care I was just the happiest. You couldn’t wipe the smile off our faces.”

Ian Fitzpatrick: “It was pretty unreal, and completely different to the previous year. I suppose for the lads it was more than just winning qualification. This was four years of hard work coming to fruition and most of us on the pitch that day had been in the programme from pretty much the start.”

Sam O’Byrne: “There was such a mix of emotions. I was fortunate that I’d been working with this team since 2015, so I’d seen them slog it from the lower leagues in Europe and the commitment that had gone in over the years from all of the back-room staff, players and their families. I was delighted for everyone, but the Media Man’s job only really gets going after the final whistle, so there was a lot to do – from getting coaches and players in front of TV cameras and microphones for interviews, herding players up to the stand to receive their medals, to then also doing my best to capture content for the IRFU channels. It was only when I sat back down at my laptop up in the photographers room did I have a chance to breathe and take in what had just occurred – these guys had done it, they were now a World Series team. After the heartbreak of 2018, I was just so delighted for them all.”

James Topping: “Looking back now, it was one of my best weeks in rugby. The enormity of the winner takes all situation. We also had doubts over some players’ fitness during the week, then lost John O’Donnell and Hugo Keenan to injury during the tournament. The near defeat to Uruguay in the Pool stages, and the semi which could have gone either way against Germany. But then to win, qualify for the World Series, play in an unbelievable atmosphere and get to enjoy it that night and the next day will be one of the highlights of my time in rugby.”

Harry McNulty: “That win was so massive for the programme. If we failed to reach the World Series that time, there is a strong chance most of the players would not have been around this season and we could have an entirely different squad. Losing that much experience really puts a strain on a programme. Who knows what would have happened. Now we are travelling the world and playing the best out there. Being put through our paces and figuring out that any team can beat us and we can beat anyone.”

Billy Dardis: “The best 24 hours of my life. We’ll never be able to repeat the heights. That week was a rollercoaster. It had dramatic lows and set-backs for all of us, but the highs were incredible. The rewards were worth every second of hard work we put in together.”

Harry McNulty: “A great bunch of friends playing together, all wanting the best for each other. An incredible journey with so many unforgettable memories.”