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Topping Eager To Build On World Cup Achievement

Topping Eager To Build On World Cup Achievement

Topping Eager To Build On World Cup Achievement

Chay Mullins, the youngest member of the Ireland squad, takes on the Australian defence during the Bronze final in Cape Town ©INPHO/Travis Prior

James Topping says medalling at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town is a ‘great boost’ to the IRFU Men’s Sevens Programme, which continues its remarkable rise from its launch only eight years ago.

The Ireland coach watched on proudly as tries from Terry Kennedy and Harry McNulty clinched a tremendous 19-14 win over Australia in the Bronze final at Cape Town Stadium.

It was an unforgettable weekend for captain Billy Dardis and his team-mates, who strung together victories over Portugal (24-0), England (17-5), hosts South Africa (24-14) and Australia, and pushed eventual runners-up New Zealand extremely close in a 17-10 semi-final defeat.

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It is the latest in a line of impressive recent achievements for the Ireland Men who, in the last 15 months, have qualified and played at an Olympic Games for the first time and gone on to more than make their mark on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

The 2021/22 campaign, their first fully completed one as a core team on the World Series, saw them contest their first ever Cup final, making history with their silver medal success in Toulouse, and reach all bar one of the nine Cup quarter-finals.

Their best ever overall series finish of fifth, coupled with Terry Kennedy’s individual accolades as the competition’s top try scorer and a member of the HSBC Dream Team, was followed by a Rugby Europe Trophy title win and qualification for the World Cup.

Retirements post-Olympics meant there was some rebuilding to do, but with Topping giving game-time to upwards of 22 players on the recent series, it has been hugely encouraging to see some of the newcomers bed into the side.

For the likes of Leinster’s Andrew Smith and IQ Rugby duo Chay Mullins and Matt McDonald, this is still their first year in the Sevens set-up. They are now World Cup bronze medallists and a sign of a growing pool of talent at Topping’s disposal.

Reflecting on how his charges are now mixing it with the world’s best Sevens teams, he said: “Obviously a World Cup is every four years, and we’ve really just had a year-and-a-half on the World Series to get used to this level of competition.

“For the guys to come in and get a bronze, and in a competition that’s a (straight) knockout and to beat the hosts South Africa and then Australia who won the World Series as well, it’s a great boost for us.

“Looking forward, we hope we can build on this. We’ve got the Olympics – that’s what we’re going to try qualify for next – and we want to try and encourage guys and see if we can grow the squad even further before that comes around.”

Building depth is vital for Ireland to continue to be able to compete at the highest level possible on the World Series and to challenge for silverware on both the European and global stages.

A core group of experienced players, led by Dardis, Kennedy and talismanic forward McNulty, has laid the foundations for medal successes such as today, that continuity and their driving of standards crucial especially in the tougher times.

There have been plenty of changes on and off the pitch in recent seasons. Along with those retirements, the likes of Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien and Robert Baloucoune have moved on to make waves in the 15s game, while Anthony Eddy stepped down as IRFU Director of Sevens Rugby in March.

They showed character and resilience to park that Covid-19-truncated 2019/20 season and other setbacks, working hard on their own and, collectively, back at the IRFU High Performance Centre where they stay focused on attaining goals for the World Series and elsewhere.

With the provinces, clubs and player development pathways continuing to produce potential Sevens internationals, Topping was able to marry that experienced, tight-knit group with some exciting fresh talent coming through.

The hope is that there are even better days ahead for this ambitious Irish squad, particularly with the age profile of some of those involved being so young – Smith is 22, Mullins is 20, and four more of the Cape Town ‘dozen’ are 24 or younger.

Reflecting on the road they have travelled since becoming a core team on the World Series in 2019, Topping admitted: “We came in at the start and were trying to pick our battles, trying to avoid relegation from the series.

Now we find ourselves preparing for semi-finals, and we’ve been in a Cup final (in Toulouse) as well. This World Cup for us, I think, has been a real showcase of the depth we’ve acquired over the last two years with this squad.

“Covid hit all sports, but it kind of gave us a bit of time to rebuild the squad. We’ve guys in the squad who’ve just made their debuts only in the last few months with the Sevens team.”

For Dardis, the captain of the team since 2017, he acknowledged it was ‘pretty surreal’ to be standing in Cape Town Stadium with a World Cup bronze medal around his neck.

The Ireland Sevens players and staff will enjoy some well-deserved time off before preparations begin for the World Series merry-go-round to return with the first 2022/23 event in Hong Kong in early November.

Dardis was understandably delighted to sign off in South Africa with a podium finish and some notable scalps, the biggest of the lot being their upset of the Blitzboks on Saturday night in front of a raucous home crowd.

Mindful that this upcoming year offers them a chance to qualify for the 2024 Olympics via the World Series, he said: “I think it’s only up from here. We’ve got the Olympics in two years’ time, we’ve got this year to try and qualify for that.

It’s extremely exciting to see what we can do as a group. I think (winning bronze) is a fair reflection of where we’ve got this programme to as players and staff.

“There’s a core group of lads, the last six years, who’ve worked as hard as they can to make this a world class programme and I think it’s just that.”