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Provincial Players Could Aid Ireland Men’s Olympic Medal Hunt

Provincial Players Could Aid Ireland Men’s Olympic Medal Hunt

Provincial Players Could Aid Ireland Men’s Olympic Medal Hunt

The Ireland Men's Sevens team huddle together before last Sunday's 3rd place play-off against Fiji in Cape Town ©INPHO/Chris Cotze

IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora has revealed that one contracted player from each province could be given the chance to make the Ireland Men’s Sevens squad for next summer’s Olympics in Paris.

History will be made in the French capital as both the Ireland Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams (sponsored by TritonLake) compete at the same Olympic Games for the first time. The Ireland Men’s side made their Olympic debut in Tokyo two years ago, finishing tenth overall.

Both squads have achieved notable success on the circuit since then. The Ireland Women won their first silver and bronze World Series medals in 2022, with a best ever season’s finish of fourth before securing fifth spot in 2022/23 to achieve Olympic qualification for the first time.

The Ireland Men, who won the European Games to reach their second successive Olympics, earned World Series silver in both Toulouse and Dubai in 2022, either side of bagging a brilliant bronze at the Rugby World Cup Sevens.

James Topping’s charges claimed the scalp of New Zealand for the first time in Cape Town last weekend, on the way to finishing fourth at the tournament and remaining fifth in the overall HSBC SVNS Series standings.

With competition for places in both squads at an all-time high ahead of the Olympics in late July, Nucifora is casting the net wider for the Men’s side and looking to get contracted 15s players involved, most likely those who already have Sevens experience.

Speaking at a media briefing today, he said: “Qualification last summer gives both our Men’s and Women’s Sevens programmes a full twelve months to prepare for the Olympics. It will probably give the Irish Olympic team the largest ever squad they’ve taken to an Olympics.

“With regards to the Men’s Sevens, we’ve reached an agreement with the provinces that we will have the ability to select one contracted player from each province for the Olympics.

“That will be done in agreement with the player. More than likely that player will be a player that will have come through the Sevens programme at some stage, so they’re familiar with the game.

“It will also be a fact that we’ll work with the province and the player and look to integrate that player, or players, in the back-end of this season to be able to see where they fit and whether they can earn their selection in the Olympic squad, which will be named probably in late June or early July.

“The squad at the moment, the way that it sits, is already very strong. The Men beat New Zealand for the first time in Cape Town (last weekend) and lost the bronze medal match against Fiji.

“Already they are there or thereabouts and have a very strong squad. So any players we look to bring in will have to be people that we think can add value significantly to the current squad.”

Recent Rugby World Cup debutants Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien both flourished with the Ireland Sevens team, most notably winning bronze at the London Sevens in 2018 and playing together at that year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens alongside Ulster speedster Robert Baloucoune, a fellow future 15s international.

They are some of the current contracted players in the provinces with Sevens backgrounds, along with Connacht duo Andrew Smith and Liam McNamara, who helped Ireland to qualify for the Olympics earlier this year, former Sevens captain Tom Daly, and Munster’s Shane Daly, another dual international, and Jack Daly.

Leinster’s Will Connors, Liam Turner and Chris Cosgrave, and Ulster’s Nick Timoney, Cormac Izuchukwu, Ben Moxham, Jude Postlethwaite and Aaron Sexton, have also spent time in the Sevens programme.

Former sprinter Sexton, who was clocked at reaching a top speed of 37.8kmph when playing for Ulster ‘A’, was part of the Ireland squad that qualified for the Tokyo Olympics via the global repechage in 2021.

Eight of that squad from the Monaco tournament were involved in last week’s Cape Town event, including playmaker Terry Kennedy, who is the SVNS Series’ joint-top try scorer so far with 11 tries, and ever-durable captain Harry McNulty.

They are two of the remaining ‘Originals’ from the early years of the Men’s Sevens programme, which Nucifora established back in 2014 as part of the IRFU’s expanded Player Development Pathway. Nine short years later, Ireland has two teams regularly competing with the best in the world.

Unlike France captain Antoine Dupont who is set to miss the 2024 Guinness Six Nations as he makes the switch to Sevens for an Olympics on home soil, Nucifora said that any potential player on the Ireland Sevens radar would still play in the Championship if selected.

“They’d still certainly be playing the Six Nations if they were selected. The lead-in time would look at how it affects and works in with their provincial requirements at the moment.

So it might be that a player might come and play a tournament, one of the World Series tournaments prior to the end and then go back into provincial rugby, then come back again.

“It will just be a management scenario of how we look at each player and each provincial team, how we might do that. Then we’ll make a decision on how many of those eligible players, we’re looking at a maximum of four.

“We might take none, we might take four. I suppose that’s something we’ve just got to work out – who can add value to the group, helping us towards winning an Olympic gold medal.”

The HSBC SVNS Series is already two tournaments in, with another five to follow before the newly-created grand final weekend in Madrid in mid-June.

The Perth leg takes place on January 26-28, the Vancouver and Los Angeles tournaments are both on during the Six Nations, and Hong Kong (April 5-7) and Singapore (May 3-5) – both on Champions Cup knockout weekends – are the last two stops before Madrid.