Tuesday 26 September 2017

Sevens' players fear Rio dreams will disappear

We'd play for free, insists Aherne as Olympic hopes fade

Keith Earls
Keith Earls
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Like Andy Dufresne in 'The Shawshank Redemption', Cian Aherne has been writing letters and getting very little in return.

Rather than a prison library, the Lansdowne winger wants an outlet to represent his country. A Sevens international, he is frustrated by the fact that Ireland is the only rugby-playing nation in the world's top 20 that doesn't have a programme designed to get them to the Olympics by entering a team on the international circuit.

When the sport was included on the schedule for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it was seen as an opportunity for Ireland to further their place on the medals table. After all, here was a variation of a game at which this country excels.

The women's team have shown what a little investment and a lot of commitment can achieve by gaining core status on the circuit this summer. However, it looks increasingly unlikely that they will be joined by their male counterparts on the road to Rio.

Rather than progress towards the Olympics, there has been regression for the Sevens game here. This year was the first that Ireland did not send a team to the Sevens World Cup and, as fringe rugby nations get their act together, there is a real sense that the potential to get to Rio in less than three years is fading away.

Olympic

It appears that the IRFU still see Sevens as a development tool, rather than a conduit to Olympic success.

"We wouldn't necessarily be chasing Olympic success with the men's team, that is not a strategy we would go down," a union spokesman said.

"The strategy would be that if we thought Sevens could create a strong brand and would also lead into development of Sevens from a 15s point of view (we would pursue it) because the primacy of rugby in Ireland will always be 15s.

"It isn't like a decision has been made that we will never play Sevens, it is constantly being reviewed."

Frustrated by the lack of action, Aherne came up with a proposal to enter a team of club players in the circuit, pledging to find sponsorship and support himself.

All he would need, he said, was the union's blessing – no team can be entered on the circuit representing Ireland without it. He took to writing to and emailing all of the relevant stakeholders in the IRFU. He tweeted and blogged about it in an attempt to gain attention. Nobody from the union wrote back, nobody called.

Eventually, he was granted an audience with IRFU director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth, but there was little progress.

The union have ruled out entering a team on the international circuit and say they will make a decision in the coming months as to whether to go through the European or World repechage route, but a decision is a while off yet.

When Aherne lined out for Ireland in 2007 and '08, he did so alongside the likes of Keith Earls, James Coughlan, Chris Henry, Felix Jones and Paul Marshall.

Earls looks back on the experience as a completely positive one and is scratching his head as to why the team he played with no longer competes at the top level.

"I don't know why Ireland don't have a Sevens rugby team," he said. "We have some extremely talented running players, and I think we could do serious damage in World Cups and on the circuit. I enjoyed it. It just gives you a lot of confidence to run when there is a bit of space."

Since 2008, there have been various initiatives to start up a Sevens programme, with the Shamrock Warriors competing on the club circuit until 2012. It was hoped that this sanctioned team would act as a stepping stone to Ireland competing on the international stage.

"They did quite well, they went over and did the circuit in England, won whatever tournaments they could here, but in the end the IRFU just weren't backing them in any way," recalled Aherne, who was involved with the squad.

"The only thing they could possibly get was official club status as an Irish Sevens team. After that, they weren't doing anything, so the lads got frustrated, the coach got frustrated, players weren't really motivated.

"The whole thing flopped last year, finished up because there wasn't funding, there was no backing or any light at the end of the tunnel."

They have been partially replaced by the Wild Geese, a side made up of All-Ireland League players who won the Dubai Sevens last year and won every tournament in Ireland this year, but are not an official outfit.

Frustrated by the lack of options, Aherne took to rounding up like- minded souls and trying to get a programme off the ground himself.

"It got to this summer and the IRFU have backed the women's team for the World Cup, but for the first time this year we didn't have an Irish team at the men's World Cup because we weren't at the Europeans," he explained.

"The IRFU's stance seems to be that they don't want to fund or back the team, so I said, 'what do I do?' because I'd love to be involved in an Irish Sevens team, I don't care about financial backing, I'd play for free – and I'm sure there are other lads who would do the same.

"I just don't understand where they're coming from. There is plenty of room for flexibility. Anything we can do to qualify."

That approach will likely be rejected by the union, who are not of a mind to send a team of amateur club players out to represent Ireland, even if they fund themselves, citing insurance and doping regulations as reasons why it would not be a runner.

If they were to do it, the feeling is that the team would consist of Academy players, supplemented by top club players.

With a minimum of three months felt to be required to get on the circuit, the cost is believed to be in the region of €200,000.

"The Sevens teams I played with in 2007 and '08, you could see the potential was there, we managed to qualify for the World Cup with minimal preparation. The quicker we start the better," Aherne said.

The union, however, maintain that Rio is a dream too far.

"The Olympics, realistically, is going to be hugely competitive, because most of the (men's) programmes out there are spending around €1m a year," the spokesman added.

For any young player with Olympic dreams, it would appear the door is closing, but those who feel that Ireland could succeed at Sevens will continue to press their case.

Time is running out.

The union will make their decision on next year's participation over the next few months, but every week Ireland don't compete makes it more likely that the Olympics will take place without an Irish Sevens team.

Irish Independent

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