Six years ago the Ireland men’s 15s team were crowned Six Nations champions but their sevens counterparts were still very much a work in progress.
David Nucifora had been appointed IRFU performance director the previous April and a formal sevens programme was one of the first things he put in place.
Nucifora knew the value of sevens as part of the performance and development pathway and fellow Australian Anthony Eddy was recruited as director of rugby sevens.
Eddy assembled a squad of players, some from other sports and others from within rugby who’d perhaps not had the breaks they’d hoped for in 15s, and the team started to rise through the ranks.
It was fitting that one of the ‘the originals’ to have been there from the start, Terry Kennedy, played such an integral role in helping Ireland make it through to the Olympics Games in Tokyo at the expense of France in Monaco this weekend.
The 28-19 victory in the Olympic Repechage was the latest chapter in the remarkable story of this team.
“It’s something we’ve dreamed about for the last number of years,” said Kennedy, whose audacious no-look pass while on his knee in the pool victory over Samoa had to be seen to be believed.
What a deadly interview this is to listen to. The excitement & disbelief of finally getting to achieve the goal of being an Olympian. It’s so exciting for them and all their efforts rewarded. https://t.co/mKqiwgj3ex— Brian O'Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) June 20, 2021
From having a fixture list that included games against the likes of Turkey, Montenegro. Belarus and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the third tier of Rugby Europe’s competition structure, within a short period of time Ireland were taking on, and competing with, the best in the world.
Three straight wins in the pool stages of the Olympic Repechage tournament in 2016 had current Ireland captain Billy Dardis, then one of the novices of the team, dreaming of Olympic glory only for eventual winners Spain to deny them in the quarter-finals.
Dardis and his team had to wait another five years before achieving that goal but there were plenty of highs in between.
The first tangible sign of Ireland’s progress as a serious force in world sevens came at the London Sevens in 2018.
Still not yet a core team on the World Series – that status was earned the following year – Ireland reached their first-ever tournament semi-final before going on to beat hosts England in the bronze medal match.
Jordan Conroy starred that day and was top try scorer on the World Series in 2020 in Ireland’s debut season as a core team.
The speedster took that form with him to Monaco and was again without peers in the finishing stakes, dotting down for 11 tries including two in the 28-19 win against France in the final.
“I’m speechless, I can’t believe we actually did it. All the hard work has paid off and I couldn’t be happier,” said an ecstatic Conroy at the final whistle.
After storming through the pool stages with comfortable wins against Zimbabwe (31-10), Mexico (31-0) and Tonga (43-0) and a tougher workout against Samoa (21-7), Ireland advanced to the semi-final where they defeated Hong Kong (28-5), which set up the decider against a France side enjoying the bulk of the support in Stade Louis II.
Kennedy struck first for Ireland before Conroy added a brace and it was left to another of the ‘originals’, Harry McNulty, to seal the deal and a place at the Olympics in just over a month’s time.
Ireland can now look forward to joining hosts Japan, 2016 winners Fiji and Argentina, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Kenya, Korea, New Zealand, South Africa and USA in battling it out for the gold medal.
An emotional Dardis summed up what qualification meant to him and his team and Irish rugby in general.
“When I started about five years ago, we had a good enough team and we played in this tournament in 2016 and I’d only had my first cap a few weeks before. We won our first day and I remember lying in bed thinking, ‘Jesus, we could do something really special here’. We lost that one but we stuck with the programme and each year we kept on getting better,” Dardis said.
“It’s incredible what we have done over a number of years. I thought we were out of it for a while in that first half when they had so much possession and they got in front. But then we got a few lucky bounces, and I think that’s sevens, if the bounce of the ball goes your way you can end up in the Olympics. How cool is that?
“We have done something special for Ireland, for Ireland rugby, for all the kids back home and selfishly, for ourselves. Kids will start playing rugby, maybe, after seeing us at the Olympics.
“It is really overwhelming how much this means to all of us and how big this is.”