'Massive step up' for Ireland Sevens sides as race for Rio gets serious
As the rugby world prepares to awake from its summer slumber, Ireland's men and women's Sevens teams have been quietly going about trying to gain Olympic qualification.
For a journey that largely began last October when the IRFU confirmed that the men's Sevens programme would be relaunched, this weekend's Rugby Europe Olympic Repechage tournament in Lisbon is crucial. Both teams must finish in the top three to advance to next year's World Olympic Repechage, when just one team will qualify for Rio 2016.
The appointment of Anthony Eddy, former general manager of Sevens at the Australian Rugby Union, was a signal of the IRFU's intent - and in particular, David Nucifora's intent.
IRFU performance director Nucifora has spoken of the importance of a Sevens programme in this country, and the benefits of that have already been seen in the progress made by both teams.
The men's team have cruised through their tournaments so far but the realisation that they are yet to face quality opposition is very real according to Eddy, who is both teams' coach.
"The next stage of competition for the men in Lisbon will be extremely difficult," he said.
"The men have probably progressed through Divisions B and C in the European competition pretty easily, but this weekend will be a massive step up for them, with teams such as Russia, Portugal, Germany and Lithuania who've been playing on the Grand Prix series and have good Sevens experience.
"The girls played a lot of these teams already in the Rugby Europe competition. They know exactly what to expect."
Dublin has already been confirmed as a host venue for a major World Rugby women's Sevens tournament for the first time, which typifies the work that is being done off the field.
On the field, it has been just as taxing.
"It's been difficult from day one. We had nearly 500 men go through the whole process and we ended up cutting it down to a group of about 26," Eddy explained.
"It's another pathway for players, particularly for the men. You just have to look at what some of the other countries have done in the last few years with the development of some of the players who have come through the Sevens circuit."
Miracles aren't expected to happen over night but Eddy insists that for the game to reach the kind of levels to compete with the best, the club game needs to become more heavily involved.
"You'll always have the case where you can pick guys directly from the 15s but ideally, there's a number of Sevens tournaments that operate around the country, it'd be great to see a little bit more support from the clubs," he said.
"There's tournaments that run here domestically and for clubs to actually provide players with the opportunity to be regularly playing Sevens competitions, would create a direct pathway into the national team.
"We've just started from scratch and we've been pretty patient about what we want to do.
"It's a long process to develop that culture but ideally, if we do get one team to the Olympics, that's an enormous benefit for us and will create a lot of interest in the game in Ireland."
A top three finish for the men and women's teams in Lisbon this weekend would ensure that both get a real crack at fulfilling their Olympic dreams.