The trials and tribulations of Ireland’s provinces in the chase for Pro 12 glory are what dominate the Irish sport news this weekend. Munster hammered Edinburgh at Meggetland whilst Leinster defeated fourteen-man Ulster at a brand new Ravenhill. At the same time the next leg of the Sevens circuit was taking place in Glasgow but there was no coverage on the fortunes of the Irish Sevens team, for the simple reason that Ireland do not have a Sevens team.
The official statement that the IRFU trot out is that an Irish Sevens side would not be competitive. As late as 2009 Ireland defeated an Australian team contradicting the IRFU’s argument. It can be said that Ireland would struggle to compete at the high end of the World Series table with the likes of New Zealand, South Africa and England because of player numbers, but would Ireland not have the same funding and playing numbers as Scotland, Wales, Fiji or the other so called minnow nations?
Another excuse is that a Sevens team would be far too costly to run. Considering that a team would have fully contracted players and coaches and would be jet setting around the globe to participate in competitions, the argument seems fair. However, the IRB pay for the teams’ accommodation and travel to each of the legs on the World Series so the IRFU would only have to pay for the wages of the players. The potential to make money is there too. The IRFU could host one of the money spinning legs of the circuit in Dublin. Irish crowds would be treated to the thrills and spills of three days of exciting, easy to understand rugby. The IRFU could fill their coffers whilst exposing a new audience to the game.
On the field the format of Sevens suits a player who has blistering speed or brute power. The game also allows a player to develop the core skills a rugby professional needs to compete at a high level. Simple things such as passing under pressure, making correct use of an overlap or the utilization of space are aspects that can be honed and improved in Sevens. An Irish Sevens team could give an opportunity to young talent in the provincial set up, who are failing to get game time, to test themselves in a competitive environment against world class players rather than a couple of academy games a year. New Zealand is one country who promotes the use of the Sevens game in order to allow Test standard players to refine their skills. Many Sevens internationals have gone onto represent the All Blacks like Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen, Joe Rokocoko and Israel Dagg.
One issue that has been put forward for the IRFU’s reluctance to introduce a Sevens side is the question of eligibility at the Olympic Games. The IRB recognises that rugby in Ireland is run on a 32-county basis so there would be no problem with a team in the World Series. However, in the Olympics, The IOC recognises that the British Olympic Council organises sport in the United Kingdom which includes Northern Ireland which means a player born in the six counties could potentially play for Team GB in Sevens at the Games in Rio. The IRFU understandably would like to avoid this awkward situation as rugby in Ireland has remained relatively clear of the complex political situation of the island. But if the question were to arise a simple Gentleman’s agreement with Team GB not to pick Northern Irish rugby players for the British Sevens team could be struck. And if all else fails the IRFU could use its muscle and stipulate in Irish players’ contracts that if you sign a deal with the IRFU then you only represent IRFU sides at international competitions.
The shorter form of the Union game is one of the world’s fastest growing sports and with it being included in the Rio Olympics interest in Sevens around the world will only increase. Ireland is the only country in the world’s top 20 that does not compete in the annual Sevens Rugby circuit. The IRFU are missing out on a huge potential to expose their young athletes to high level competition, capturing a new audience in the country and three fun filled days of entertaining rugby at the Aviva. The men in charge of rugby on this island who believe the team would not be cost effective or a success, should remember the seanfhocal, “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí!” After all Ireland’s women have a Sevens team. Surely it is time for the men to have a team too.
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.