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‘We can’t play like Fiji, we haven’t got that sort of personnel'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo By Ben McShane/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

James Topping laughed heartily the other day when RugbyPass suggested to him that Johnny Sexton was at a loose end and could perhaps do a shift for Ireland sevens now that he has retired from the rough and tumble XVs.

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Men’s head coach Topping and co are Dubai-bound, ready to kick off the newly revamped HBSC SVNS Series next weekend, and it just so happens that Sexton has been clubbing his way around the UAE capital, golfing with Rory McIlroy and enjoying the winter sun.

“Well, hopefully we get enough restarts, he could take them,” quipped Topping with a grin. “No. We have got these guys here. They are all good to go, they are ready for this tournament. We always look to build our squad, we are always interested in seeing down the line.

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“I get lots of emails, lots of phone calls all the time, so building the squad is what makes the squad and the guys who are in the squad know that as well. It’s a case of making sure we put ourselves in good stead in the World Series and let’s see what options we have going into Olympics.”

The name Topping doesn’t have the same cache for millennial rugby fans as it does for the older generations, but the 48-year-old’s playing career wasn’t without its zesty highs. There was involvement in the famed 1999 European Cup win with Ulster, the first Irish province to break through on that stage.

Topping Ireland
James Topping in action for Ireland versus Australia in 2003 (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

He also won eight Test caps, including appearing for Ireland at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, and was part of the 10-man Irish squad that participated at the 2001 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Argentina – an adventure that gave him gravitas when it came to expanding a coaching career that began as an elite player development officer in Ulster.

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Looking back on his sevens playing days, he recalled: “There wasn’t as much structure and training went into it. To be honest, you look at the teams we played against: Agustin Pichot for Argentina. Eric Rush was playing. Lawrence Dallaglio, played against him at sevens. Played against Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen from New Zealand.

“It was all these guys who were 15-a-side players who went and played sevens, that’s the way it was. There were the guys who played in the World Cups. Now it’s all sevens specialists that are playing in these teams and you get the odd occasion that maybe an international comes in now and again.

“It’s great because you are looking at individuals that are specialising in the sevens game since then. They want to play rugby. Maybe 15-a-side doesn’t suit them and this is another route they can go down where they can play for us with maybe a chance of going back into 15-a-side, but they can try and make it a career of it now as well.”

With the IRFU conscious of its bottom line, Ireland had long since quit playing sevens when high-performance boss David Nucifora arrived in Dublin in 2014. Unlike the bean-counting local administrators, the Australian made it a pet project to restart the code. The legacy nine years later is to have men’s and women’s teams qualified for the Paris Olympics and part of the HSBC SVNS Series.

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What were those little acorn days like nearly a decade ago? “Sevens wasn’t even on the radar,” remembered Topping, who at the time was busy up north developing Ulster’s academy youngsters. “The sevens team didn’t even play at that stage so whenever David came over he asked me to come down on the very first day, the very first screening in Lansdowne, and see if we could do something.

“The World Series at that stage was five levels above us and we were getting beaten by invitational teams from England. Those are the same guys who are now going to play in the World Series and go to the Olympics. The talent can grow in our players the whole time. We have just got to make sure we get good enough competition within the group play around the world and make sure we do grow.”

DNA is a frequent rugby talking point. What is the Irish sevens style? “We can’t play like Fiji, we haven’t got that sort of personnel, so we are very much relying on our skills like the 15-a-side,” explained Topping, the qualified engineer who joined the IRFU full-time in 2019 and has since worked his way up to become the head coach.

Ireland Rugby World Cup Sevens celebrations
Ireland celebrate at the 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town (Photo by Mike Lee/KLC fotos for World Rugby)

“We want to be fast and accurate with our passing, we want to be good chop tacklers, we want to fast over the ball. A lot of our guys are pretty quick but they are not big so we have got to adjust our game.

“Obviously, Terry Kennedy is probably one of the best sevens players in the world, so we can base a lot of our game around what he does, and there are three or four other guys in the same sort of boat as him. We have got to try and work what our strengths are and stay to that and that is the smart way we can do it.

“If we try to play sevens in its purest form we would suffer so we are a pretty structured team. With that structure, if we have guys who come in from the 15-a-side game it’s a bit easier for them to come in to try and develop as well.”

Try-scoring machine Kennedy ended 2022 as the World Rugby sevens player of the year, quite the feat in a sport traditionally dominated by flashy southern hemisphere giants. What makes the 27-year-old Irishman so special? “Ah, em, I don’t know,” said Topping, momentarily lost for words to describe his team’s mercurial star. “The opposition can’t work that out I don’t think.

“Terry was in that same team as Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Shane Daly, that U20s 2016 World Cup final team, James Ryan and all that. He was in that team so there are a lot of guys that just miss out or maybe it doesn’t suit them to go down that 15s route.

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“He is thriving here. He has got a job (outside rugby). He works away, can come and train with us and play rugby against some of the best players in the world, so it really suits him. He took a year out, came back and was probably one of the top players in Krakow again straight away scoring tries and helping us to get into the Olympics.

“Listen, Terry is a very special guy. I hope nobody finds out what makes him so good because he is producing the form for us and does that in training every time.”

Last week’s visit by RugbyPass to the IRFU’s high-performance centre in Dublin highlighted just how vibrant the sevens set-up currently is. Long gone are the days of bare minimum squad and limited resources. Winning is now the definite aspiration.

“Before the last Olympics (in Tokyo) we had maybe 15 guys training, so it was only a matter of two or three guys not getting selected unfortunately. Now we have got 25 going with the two squads to Dubai, we have got a team going to the invitational tournament as well and that drives the competition.

“Guys know they are not going to get selected if they don’t perform, not because someone gets injured and the numbers are low. They know there is competition, they know there are guys both from inside and outside the squad looking to have a crack.

“That puts them in a good spot and makes sure the guys are prepared well each week. You can’t really play tournaments or games every week, we have just got to play against ourselves each week and we are starting to build a good squad to do that.

“We have got a lot of players now who have grown up or started their rugby careers with rugby being an Olympic sport since Rio 2016. Whenever I played you certainly couldn’t think about going to an Olympics, it wasn’t an option, wasn’t anything that you looked at.

“But that has put the game in a good profile, especially in the rugby world. It is going to be interesting to see who turns out on the pitch over these next few months when we are playing the World Series.”

Having finished a best-ever fifth in 2021/22, a series followed by a bronze medal at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town, Topping won’t be settling for minor placings in the weeks and months ahead on the revamped schedule that will build towards the Madrid grand final before the Olympics follows in late July.

“That’s it, we need to win it. We have got to finals, we have got podiums but we need to try and win (sevens series legs) because that will only grow our confidence and our belief. If you are talking the way people are about the Olympics, you need to have taken firsts before we get anywhere.

“We haven’t beaten New Zealand yet, we have got to beat those guys. If we beat those guys then that starts to make other teams look at us and fear us that wee bit. That’s in our hands. We can handle nearly any team.

“We have just got to make sure our mistakes are taken down maybe five, 10 per cent because we have lost so many games by one score or seven points. We have got to make sure if we get an opportunity we take it every time.

It’s a huge, big change,” he added about the World Rugby revamp. “Whenever we were trying to qualify there was one team that got relegated from the World Series and it was a bit safe. Now the bottom four go into a play-off so it is really tough and there is going to be a lot of pressure, a lot of excitement.

“Throughout the year however it does go, it’s going to be a huge step up for these guys from playing invitational tournaments at the very start. Now they are into pressure games every game right to the end. You can’t just roll over in the last game of the tournament because that point at the end of the day might come back to haunt you.”

We finish with the query about what drives Topping, the coach. We all know how touring the world is the attraction for all the young men and women who play, but how does the sevens format inspire someone orchestrating the tactics from the sidelines?

“It is just genuinely the competition. I was a coach in Ulster developing rugby but you weren’t playing high-end tournaments each year. I have gone away and coached, played against Fiji, half of those guys played in the World Cup for Fiji. The same with Australia, New Zealand. We are playing every week against guys who are top internationals and there is high pressure each week as well.

“It’s that excitement of you prepping a team and it doesn’t matter how you do in that game; at the end of the day win or lose, you are on the next game straight away and that is the most important thing. It’s high pressure, it’s exciting and that’s the thing I get from it.”

  • Click here for all the details about the new-season HSBC SVNS Series 
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