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Curious Ireland 'boys are frustrated getting bronze' Hong Kong verdict

By Liam Heagney
Ireland meet the fans in Hong Kong (Photo by Mike Lee/World Rugby)

Rags to riches and potentially an Olympic Games jackpot prize in 15 weeks is the inspiring story of Ireland this past decade on the men’s sevens circuit. Their team didn’t exist when David Nucifora pitched in Dublin in 2014 with a grand plan to get the Irish high performing across all levels of its programme.

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That included the revival of a sevens team shelved some years earlier by the IRFU due to financial constraints. In the Australian’s mind, he understood the upside to sevens and the ability to harness a contingent of other professional players separate from the XVs game.

It’s been a lengthy climb up from the off-the-beaten-track foothills, a journey not lost on head coach James Topping, a sevens and Test veteran from the late 1990s/early noughties.

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Standing in the Hong Kong Stadium tunnel with a second successive third-place finish secured on this season’s HSBC SVNS circuit, he allowed him a chuckle when RugbyPass put it to him that the raucous final day atmosphere in the Far East was a far cry from places such as Montenegro where the Irish commenced their sevens rebirth 10 years ago.

“When I was working for Ulster at the time, he [Nucifora] asked a few of us to come down and help out at the very start when Anthony Eddy started. I just came down and I sort of sold a way for the players to develop, sold that some players were missing out on getting into academies or provincial contracts.

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“They have kept these guys in the game and it just shows you if you keep players in the game the sort of levels they can play at and the standard they can play at.”

When the final whistle blew in Hong Kong to confirm Ireland’s bronze final win over Australia, Topping turned to his left to share a celebratory handshake with Nucifora, who was in Hong Kong acting as manager for both the men’s and women’s teams just months before he finishes up as the high-performance boss in Dublin.

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Nuicifora unfortunately isn’t a media interviews guy, not even when it comes to official World Rugby channels such as RugbyPass. A tunnel handshake in Hong Kong last Friday was as far as things went in terms of gaining an insight from him as to how Ireland have developed from nowhere to having genuine Olympic medal hopes.

The more genial Topping made amends for this Nucifora rebuff a couple of days later, intriguingly suggesting that third-place finishes are now a frustration for the high aspiring Irish who desperately desire a first title win on the circuit.

The thing is, a similar third-place finish in Paris would mean an Olympic medal, success that would leave Irish sports fans ecstatic given how traditionally rare it is for the country to bring home any type of reward from the Games.

A medal finish would be a fine achievement as Ireland were a poor 10th at the previous Olympiad but for now, a second successive SVNS semi-final loss was still fresh in Topping’s mind when he spoke just as the New Zealand and USA women’s teams were running out to the pitch to massive cheers for their Hong Kong cup final fixture.

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“That’s the thing, it’s frustrating to get put out in semis and by France both times as well, but it’s a good development for us. The boys are frustrated getting bronze. At the start of last season they would have been delighted with a bronze or to get to a semi even, so it just shows the sort of level we are now trying to compete at.

“We want to push ourselves. The last Olympics was very disappointing. We qualified a bit late and the guys never came down from that high at the Olympics and it was a disappointment, so really now we would see ourselves as competitors. We’re sitting second on this SVNS table so there is we bit of pressure for us to perform as well, but that just shows the standard we are at now.”

It was back in November when RugbyPass previously touched base with Topping on a cold afternoon at the IRFU training centre in Blanchardstown.

That was before the start of a campaign that has delivered finishes of fifth, fourth, third, fifth and now two successive thirds to leave Ireland on 86 points, second only to the 94-point Argentina with one more regular-season leg remaining in Singapore in early May before the Grand Final in Madrid.

What is the Topping verdict on Ireland six tournaments deep? “Pleasing enough. It was disappointing our semi against France. We have failed to reach a final so far this year but to bounce back and get a bronze is good for us.

“We had a poor year here in Hong Kong last year and this season has been pretty good, we have been making quarter-finals pretty much all the way through the competition. It would be nice to push ourselves on but it’s just a fair reflection of where we are at.

“We were poor at times but the guys are developing well. We just want to build now hopefully up to the Olympics. The pressure has been off relegation-wise, so we are just looking forward to Singapore, put the season to bed, enjoy Madrid and then building towards the Olympics.

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“We got a few players back this season including Terry who has boosted us quite a bit. We have got Zac McConnell, a guy from Australia, playing his debut this week, so we are very lucky that now I have a squad where I have no qualms about putting any player on the pitch or bringing in anybody from the squad who is back home.

“We really know what we are trying to do and what our focus is, and that proves we are a good team. We are not individually blessed with any great size or speed but the work that we do for each other is our strength.”

Epitomising that approach in Hong Kong was Gavin Mullin, the son of former British and Irish Lions midfielder Brendan. It was his first time playing at the iconic Far East tournament and so enthused was he by the post-bronze medal stadium walkabout for Ireland, he was even persuaded to gift his No99 jersey to one of the supporters in the South Stand.

“I gave it to someone; they deserve it,” he giddily revealed to RugbyPass. “It’s my first time playing here. It’s a really special place, the South Stand is going absolutely nuts, so it’s not too hard to get up for a game when you have got them screaming with a full house here.”

Mullin was very efficient across the six-game programme which began with a Friday morning defeat to South Africa followed by wins over Samoa, Spain and then an epic extra time quarter-final success over the USA before Sunday’s semi-final loss to the French and the bronze win over the Aussies.

“The margins are tiny in this league,” he continued. “We know how hard it is to keep coming third, it’s our third or fourth time this year. We just need that next step and get into a final. We all appreciate how hard it is to get into a semi-final and it is disappointing we are not getting past that stage.

“But it’s tough, the margins are so small. France are playing well and they just had the better of us again but look, we will be back again in Singapore. Two more tournaments for us to get going… We are happy enough going into Singapore.”

His interview was the first time Mullin had been spotted minus the white bandage he wore across the weekend to prevent some blood from oozing. “I just picked up a knock,” he explained with the wounding damage in full view. “I have a load of scar tissue on my forehead so any small knocks, it seems to just cut open.”

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