A learning exercise as Irish U19s dip into Sevens scene

Ireland, 2014 Six Nations champions, are the only nation in the IRB’s top 20 test sides without a men’s Sevens team.

As New Zealand beat Canada 54-7 last Sunday to win the Glasgow leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series, 86 teams played in the Kinsale Sevens that same weekend. In August, Thomond Park will host the European Club Sevens, but the absence of Ireland from the men’s international game will continue. In that context, it will be of interest to Irish Sevens fans that this weekend, the IRFU will send a 12-man squad to the FIRA-AER U19 Sevens European Championships in Lisbon. FIRA-AER is the administrative body for rugby union in Europe.

Twelve teams competed in the inaugural tournament, won by France, and invitations for the 2014 competition were issued last autumn. When the responses came back a month later, the organisers were pleased to see that Ireland had given it a thumbs up. “It was a surprise but a good surprise,” said FIRA-AER director, Gilles Bizot.

While Ireland’s women’s players have been competing at Sevens since 2012 with the goal of competing for a podium position in the Rio Olympics, the last Ireland men’s side took the field in the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai. Kieran Campbell captained a side which included Paul Marshall, James Coughlan, Felix Jones and Brian Carney, while Chris Henry, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley and Keith Earls had been named in squads in qualifying tournaments during that season’s Sevens journey.

Since 2009, Sevens has been the great lost art of Irish men’s rugby, at least at international level, and the IRFU’s stance on this has not changed.

“At the moment, the union has made an absolute decision that until we reopen the debate, there will not be a men’s Sevens,” said IRFU Director of Rugby, Eddie Wigglesworth, who estimates it would cost up to €1.5m to run a men’s side. “Sevens at the moment is exclusively a cost centre. There’s no revenue generation in Sevens.”

Coaching this U19 side will be former Ireland, Ulster and Connacht scrum-half, Kieran Campbell. A former Ireland Sevens captain with three test caps in 2005, Campbell is regarded by IRFU High Performance Manager Colin McEntee as an excellent fit for the job.

The squad’s first Sevens outing came just last weekend in Carrickfergus. Brought together on Thursday and entered in the Carrick Sevens without fanfare, the ‘IRFU President’s Select’ beat Edinburgh College 26-10 in the U19 final on Friday night with Shannon wing Greg O’Shea named player of the tournament. The team, drawn from U19 players not restricted by school or university exams, is seeded eighth of 16 teams in Lisbon and will have Germany, Denmark and top seeds France in their pool.

Wigglesworth was firm in his description of the acceptance of the FIRA-AER U19 Sevens invite as “a one-off decision”.

Even if Ireland jumped into men’s Sevens immediately, it’s not as simple as taking players from the 15-a-side game and expecting instant success, with different requirements both in terms of skills and physique. However, the shorter game might still prove useful. “There are some really good athletes who could be very good at Sevens that might not transfer over to 15s,” said McEntee, “but there’s also scope for Sevens to assist in 15s in certain skillsets too.”

McEntee said passing, tackling and turnover skills would be important, as well as having the confidence to take people on.

After Campbell’s team comes back from Portugal, as part of his High Performance remit, McEntee will compile a report on the tournament. It will then be up to the IRFU to digest. Perhaps this little U19 Sevens exercise might go no further. But McEntee is clear he would approach this with a positive mind: “If I see we’re missing a trick here, I’ll definitely say it.”

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