“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain.
This popular quote from American writer Mark Twain is applicable to so many different aspects of life. So often in Irish 21st-century living, we are bound by established narratives and expectations in how we should live our lives but for true happiness to be obtained, one must take risks and often explore the road less travelled.
This can be applied to sport too and in a professional rugby context in Ireland. The general path to the top of the game in this country is from impressing at underage or schools level, to the provincial academy and finally into the senior set-up.
Harry McNulty, a stalwart and seasoned campaigner of Irish Sevens, has agreed to meet me for an interview on one of his very few days off and his journey to where he is now is certainly a case of perseverance.
When we spoke, he was just back from Marcoussis where Ireland finished in 1st place to go along with another top spot in Moscow a week previously on the Rugby Europe Grand Prix circuit. In a few days, he would be heading over to England for the Exeter 7s where they would finish with the bronze medal.
It’s safe to say it’s been a busy few weeks for McNulty and his teammates but it’s something which the 25-year-old relishes as his squad are keen to get back to winning ways after their heartbreaking defeat to Japan at the World Series qualifier in Hong Kong in April where a bounce of a ball cost them a place in the final against Germany and World Series qualification.
“To be fair, we’ve had an absolutely amazing time over the last couple of weeks. We came into camp and we just said ‘let’s get back to winning ways’ because when we were in the Grand Prix last year, that’s what we did, we came away with two wins.”
Their third-place finish in Exeter has now confirmed their qualification for Hong Kong next April where Ireland will be looking to secure access to the World Series which would be a monumental moment for the sport in this country.
“Goals for the future is to definitely win Hong Kong – 100%. I think it’s nine months away. Going to Hong Kong in April and losing in the semi-finals, it’s extremely difficult to win Hong Kong the first time you go – it’s pretty much unheard of that a qualifying team would go and win it and just leave.
“We learned a lot, we know we can win it, we know we have the capabilities, we just have to make sure that we’re red hot. When we’re red hot, we’re very hard to play against.”
The team are certainly ‘red hot’ at the moment. From beating England at the London leg of the World Series to finishing in the top-eight at the Paris leg and the subsequent two victories on the Rugby Europe Grand Prix in Moscow and Marcoussis, the squad are heading to the World Cup and San Francisco’s beautiful AT&T Park with confidence that they can beat anyone.
“We think we can beat anyone we come up against. That’s the mindset you have to go in with. There’s no point in going to the World Cup and saying ‘Ok, yeah, well if we win our first game then we’ll play a top-eight team and we’ll just give it our best shot’.
“There’s no point in doing that because you need to give yourself goals and you need to strive and work for. Any team we come up against, we’re going to back ourselves.”
From speaking to McNulty, it’s clear that he exudes self-confidence, the kind you need at the highest level but it’s perhaps something which evaded him early in his career, especially during his time with the Munster Academy.
McNulty took up rugby at a relatively old age, at 14 when attending the rugby hotbed of Rockwell College in Co. Tipperary. However, he was born in Bahrain before travelling the world with his family and eventually growing up in New York City.
This is where a love of ice-hockey began but he did manage to get a taste of rugby as his father, who played Sevens himself, brought his son along to a club where he was coaching.
“Growing up, Dad always tried to have a bit of rugby in our lives, it was obviously difficult living in New York trying to get some rugby. Dad ended up finding a little bit of a rugby club out there where he would go and coach the kids. We would go with him. Rugby wasn’t new to me when I came back to Ireland when I was 14 but it wasn’t something I was definitely good at. I saw my first switch when I was 14! I went to Rockwell then and that’s when I picked up playing rugby more.”
McNulty relishes physical sports, hence his love for ice-hockey but although rugby is similar in the physicality stakes, it was the comparable mindset and relationship building between the two sports which grew his fledgeling admiration for the oval ball.
“I fell in love with it quickly enough because there are some similar aspects I find between ice-hockey and rugby – there’s that comradery between players. You go out there and bash each other for however long it is but then at the end, you shake hands and move on with whatever happened and a ‘see you again next week’ kind of thing! I really found a lot of similarities which was great to get into the sport and understand it.”
A brief chat about the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup for the first time and Alexander Ovechkin’s legacy leads into a more uncomfortable topic – McNulty’s release from the Munster Academy back in 2013.
After winning a Munster Schools Senior Cup with Rockwell, McNulty wasn’t invited into the Academy straight out of school but he was a part of the southern province’s underage teams. Instead, he moved to Dublin to pursue a degree at Dublin Institute of Technology. During this time, his love of Sevens flourished as he played at a tournament in Scotland in addition to playing Sevens for his club, Trinity, whose coach Tony Smeed is a huge advocate of the seven-man game.
The skills which McNulty developed in the unforgiving world of Sevens definitely helped prepare him for his time in Munster, when he was invited into the Academy in 2012. However, the 25-year-old recalls that it was perhaps the fear of making a mistake which contributed to his release from the southern province.
“For me, it was a bit tough. In the first year of the Academy, it was more about getting to know yourself really and getting a feel for everything – learning that you’re in here five days a week, training all the time and being able to know how far your body can go.
“The first year was tough but it was an amazing learning experience and in the second year, I put on a lot of size, in a good way, a lot of speed as well. I hit my goals but…but I wasn’t playing my best rugby…I was maybe afraid of making a mistake and that’s not a good way to be because you’re not going to learn as much and then at the same time you’re not going to make that break and those are the reasons why people are getting signed on, they’re making breaks, they’re scoring tries and they’re really showing themselves on a weekly basis in the AIL.
“I was probably a bit more covered and scared to make a mistake because I was like ‘if I make a mistake here, I’m not going to get signed’.”
McNulty didn’t make it to the third year of the Munster Academy and one can only imagine how heart-breaking that is for a young player, their dreams of playing professional rugby gone up in smoke. However, the 25-year-old reflects on that period and admits it was the best thing for him as it allowed him to re-evaluate his life and to see the bigger picture.
“So, I didn’t get to go into the third year but it was probably one of the better things that happened to me because I got to get out, reassess and see that rugby isn’t everything but also to understand what it takes.
“If I want rugby to be my profession or my career, this is what it takes, this is what these players go through and this is what they do on a daily basis. It was kind of good to take a step back, really. I got to finish my University degree and I got to go to Australia and study abroad. I got to play Sevens while I was down there, I got to meet so many people, so many coaches, take in different ideas, see how different players play.”
Australia isn’t the only place where McNulty has honed his Sevens education. Along with playing for King’s College in Queensland, whose chief executive is Greg Eddy, the brother of current IRFU director of women’s and sevens rugby, Anthony, McNulty also played for the Ramblin Jesters at the Glendale 7s in Colorado where his team managed to beat an invitational Fiji side filled with Olympic gold medalists – not a bad thing to have on your Sevens CV.
Ultimately, McNulty reflects on his time with Munster as a positive as he was able to surround himself with some world-class players, something which he will never forget.
“Not at all [regret], they [Munster] taught me so much. I met so many good players – Alex Wootton, Dan Goggin, Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander arrived when I just got there as well, BJ Botha was playing at the time, Paul O’Connell was there as well – there were so many amazing players when I was down there, so many people to learn off. Felix Jones was playing, I could rattle off loads of names. Andrew Conway as well.
“But no, no regret. Definitely not. I learned so much when I was down there and it was amazing but I really think it has helped me by getting out and taking a step back and understanding everything that was going on. Understanding the outside world as well, that’s only going to last for a certain amount of time, this is something that you have to do – get your University degree, play rugby – I was fortunate enough that Sevens came up while I was studying and I was able to go with them.”
It could have been so easy for McNulty to turn his back on rugby altogether after such disappointment and rather than being “fortunate that Sevens came up”, the Bahrain-born Sevens forward still had a decision to make to pursue this sport wherever it may take him.
“…you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”
As Twain said, taking risks and accepting disappointment when it comes is the key to true happiness.
Looking into the future, World Cup regardless, Hong Kong in April 2019 is the prize and the possibility of World Series qualification. One opportunity and a huge prize. Does McNulty feel the pressure?
“It was a bounce of a ball this year, that’s all it was, it’s a bounce of a ball.”
The unpredictability of rugby, much like life.
Ireland’s men and women will be taking part at the Rugby World Cup Sevens at AT&T Park in San Francisco on 20-22 July.