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Topping Targeting Podium Finishes In New-Look SVNS Series

Topping Targeting Podium Finishes In New-Look SVNS Series

Topping Targeting Podium Finishes In New-Look SVNS Series

Head coach James Topping is pictured during an Ireland Men's Sevens training session at the IRFU High Performance Centre last week ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The Ireland Men’s Sevens squad (sponsored by TritonLake) were handed a massive boost when the timely return of the talismanic Terry Kennedy was confirmed ahead of the upcoming HSBC SVNS 2024 season.

The 2022 World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year is back in the centralised squad after missing a large chunk of last season. He took a sabbatical to work with TritonLake, the team sponsors, in Sydney.

Ireland head coach James Topping is delighted to have Kennedy back full-time for what is a huge season for all involved, culminating in the Olympic Games in Paris next summer.

“I think it was good for Terry to take a year off,” Topping told IrishRugby.ie. “The way we play we have to look at our individuals that are good and base our game on that there and then. To have him out for a year made us try other things and look at other players and it gave them a chance to push themselves.

“He’s just come back 100% top form again, so there are no worries there about his commitment. He’s one of the best trainers we have so we always try to work with the guys.

“They don’t get paid enough where they can make a total living off it and retire on it. You have to look after them if they want to do other stuff. It helps us in the long run.”

Kennedy is one of the ‘Sevens Originals’ that has been there from the start of the national Sevens programme, which has been driven by IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora. The Dubliner made his debut in Zagreb in 2015 when Ireland were climbing the ranks of the Rugby Europe Sevens Divisions.

It has been quite the journey ever since, with the former Leinster Academy and Ireland Under-20 flyer breaking new ground with the Sevens squad at their maiden Olympic Games in Tokyo just over two years ago.

Another significant achievement for the group last year was their third place finish at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town. Topping took great confidence from that campaign, as his charges showed they can be real contenders on the world stage.

“The World Cup was great for us. To go there, it’s straight knockout. The previous one (in San Francisco in 2018) didn’t work out well for us as much as it could. But we played against good teams.

We got beat by a score by New Zealand in the (2022) World Cup semi-final and you sort of look back and regret that because it passed you by so quickly. You know you had a real massive opportunity there, but it gives you confidence.

“We did well to get to a couple of World Series finals in the last year (in Toulouse and Dubai). We’ve made a few mistakes this year in quarter-finals and knock-out semis, and I think that’s just a learning curve for us.

“A lot of the guys are still very inexperienced at that level of semis and finals. We’d like to hope that this year we’d be able to sort of try and get podiums on this World Series as well.”

The Ireland Men finished tenth at the Tokyo Games, the lead up to which was a real whirlwind given they only secured qualification the previous month when beating France 28-19 at the final Qualifying tournament in Monaco.

Despite the buzz of making their Olympic debut in Tokyo, Topping said they learned some key lessons from that experience, and having a full year’s lead-in this time around should put them in a much better place to perform at their best in 2024.

They became the seventh team to earn their seats on the plane to Paris, overcoming Great Britain 26-12 to win the European Games title in Krakow in June. Their rate of progression, from season to season, suggests that taking home medals next summer is a realistic target.

“Definitely, yeah,” replied Topping, when asked about the potential of winning Olympic medals. “You’ve got to try and see it and believe that you can do that there.

“The way things work it could be an easier tournament than the World Series that we play on every year, so we want to get ourselves in a good seeding position.

“It’s structured slightly differently now where you have a better chance of getting out of that quarter-final into the knockout games. See who can handle the pressure and make the least mistakes and you’ll manage to get to finals in the World Series. There’s no reason why we can’t do that at the Olympics.”

With the start of the 2024 HSBC SVNS season in Dubai next week, other nations are making moves to strength their playing rosters. Most notably, France captain Antoine Dupont is poised to miss the Guinness Six Nations in his efforts to win Olympic gold with the national Sevens team.

Former Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has also been included in Australia’s HSBC SVNS line-up, so could some of Ireland’s international players follow suit? Of course, a number of players, capped at Test level in recent years, have previously played Sevens.

Recent Rugby World Cup debutants Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien have a few impressive Sevens campaigns under their belts, while Tadhg Beirne was part of the initial extended Ireland Sevens squad back in 2015, and Jack Crowley had a brief stint in the Sevens camp two years ago.

Other players who have worn the green jersey for both the Sevens and 15s teams are Rory O’Loughlin, the now-retired Adam Byrne, Will Connors, Shane Daly, Robert Baloucoune and Nick Timoney.

Topping is not ruling out the possibility of some 15s players switching codes before the Olympics, insisting: “Absolutely not. Now that players are growing up seeing an Olympic Games, there is some sort of target they can look at.

“Always I have lots of phone calls and emails coming in from guys who are keen to have a crack, see what they can do. Professional players now, the way they operate I think they want to play 15-a-side first and foremost for Ireland, and that’s the way we want our Sevens to end up playing for Ireland at 15-a-side level.

“If something can be worked with some of them, probably more so the guys who have been involved before.”

While welcoming the idea of codeswitching if it works well for all parties involved, the Ireland Sevens boss has full faith in the players that got his side to this point. His plan is to help them develop further as players.

“Those guys got us into the World Series. I’d say we’ve got maybe three or four guys now who are real world class players in the team.

“We need another four or five world class players, not necessarily coming in, but from our own group pushing forward or from externally trying to get in there so we can have a real rounded squad to support the guys who are really performing at a top notch every tournament.”

He added: “You’ve got to earn your spot. You’ve got to be fair – and if they are the best player you pick them.

“It’s a big learning curve. We’ve got guys who have come in, who have played maybe age-grade level here and to get into the Sevens system and the speed it’s played and the structures that are in the game, it takes a lot mentally because it’s totally different (to 15s).

“Guys have to get their heads around that. The beauty of our guys is because they do it all the time, they are instinctive and that’s the way Sevens is played.”