We need Sevens involvement far more than they will ever need us
Published 29/03/2011 | 05:00
Yesterday in Dublin saw the launch of the Shamrock Warriors as the first 'recognised' Sevens rugby club in Ireland.
Former Ulster and Leinster coach Matt Williams will act as its technical director, while former St Mary's out-half Fergal Campion coaches the men's squad and ex-Ireland player Sarah Jane Belton takes charge of the women's team.
Former Ireland wing Denis Hickie has an honorary chairman role in the new initiative dedicated exclusively -- we are assured -- to the long overdue development of the abbreviated game in this country.
As someone who believes wholeheartedly in the truncated version of the game and cannot understand why we let IRB Sevens involvement pass us by, I am sceptical about the IRFU's commitment to the Sevens game.
In the words of IRFU director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth: "The long-term goal is for the Shamrock Warriors to develop a body of experienced Sevens players which the IRFU may tap into depending on the decision regarding professional Sevens involvement in the Olympic Games and IRB circuit".
How long is a piece of string? How long the long-term goal? And doesn't the word "may" cover a multitude of possibilities?
Last weekend we had extensive coverage of the Hong Kong Sevens -- the festival that launched the game on a global scale back in the 1980s. Apart from the big southern hemisphere trio, you had four of the Six Nations teams as well as Portugal, South Korea, USA, Japan, China, Samoa, Tonga, Mexico, Fiji, Kenya, Russia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Spain, Argentina, Canada and Zimbabwe all taking part.
Only Ireland, Italy, Georgia and Romania of the top 20 IRB-ranked countries have chosen not to go the Sevens route.
The establishment of the Warriors is a worthwhile initiative, but I do worry greatly as to the level of back-up where it really matters. I suspect there is an element of people in high places covering their tails, given the introduction of Sevens as an Olympic sport looming on the horizon.
I hope I am wrong, but the laissez-faire attitude to getting involved in Sevens never ceases to amaze me. We all understand the economic times we are in, but even at the height of the financial boom, we were at best ambivalent about Sevens.
The motives of Campion, Belton and Co will be genuine, but my worry is seeing half-baked support for an initiative that should be a no-brainer.
There are many benefits to be had from our involvement on the professional Sevens circuit -- especially in technical terms, where the shortened game gives a spatial awareness the 15-man game cannot.
If the IRFU is sincere in wanting Irish representation by way of a specialist core Sevens group (and not just as a token for the 2016 Olympics) then "may" must become "will". Either we do it properly or we drop further behind the rest in not doing it at all.
For the 'newly formed' Warriors -- who have actually existed since 2008 -- the immediate aim is to run trials over the next six weeks to assemble a squad of 25 for both teams prior to the 2011 British and Irish Sevens season. The men's squad will participate in Kinsale, Omagh, Manchester, London, the West Country and Newquay, with the women competing in London and the West Country.
As things stand, it is the intention of the IRFU to make a decision in early 2013 as to any future involvement in both the Olympic and IRB Sevens circuit -- which beggars belief. Anything that helps narrow the gap between the domestic game and international rugby is worth pursuing ... period.
There is room for a Sevens event at a packed Aviva Stadium with all the carnival atmosphere that Hong Kong and Wellington now create. One thing we're great at in this country is the craic -- punters will flock from all four corners to indulge.
In commercial terms for Dublin, the spin-off is obvious; the question is not can we afford to take part -- we cannot afford not to. The 2016 Olympic train has already left the station and in two years' time we might decide to catch up and grab the last carriage somewhere along the way.
With all due respect to the provincial academies -- and there is some great development work being done there -- what better way of learning the pro trade than in competing with top players in front of capacity crowds on a regular basis.
The fact that the IRFU will make a decision in early 2013 "as to our future engagement in the IRB professional Sevens circuit" tells you where the issue stands in the governing body's order of importance.
The only danger in setting up the Warriors is that clubs may perceive it as a new threat competing for their players. That could well happen. But if it provides a vehicle for launching some -- particularly players missing out on academy opportunities -- in the pro game, then isn't that a good thing?
Or as Hickie -- how good could he have been on the IRB Sevens circuit? -- rightly says: "We hope the rugby clubs throughout Ireland will see this new organisation as complementary, one that will keep their players involved in rugby of all types for as long as possible, with the goal of Olympic participation the ultimate for aspiring Sevens players, their clubs and this new dedicated seven-a-side team".
For the record, Sevens became part of the 2016 and 2020 Olympic programmes on October 9, 2009.
IRB planning started almost immediately, with rugby now being taught as an Olympic sport in schools in China, the US and Russia (where the government has committed to building new rugby stadia as they move towards hosting the World Cup Sevens in Moscow 2013).
Sevens was once again a key element to the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games last year and will also be part of the Pan-American Games at Guadalajara this year.
In the meantime, we will make a decision on whether or not to bother to participate in 2013!
We'll leave the last word to the IRFU following yesterday's well-intentioned new dawn for Irish Sevens.
"We wish the Shamrock Warriors the best of luck in the coming seasons."
Make of that what you will but don't hold your breath. And the saddest irony is that we need IRB Sevens involvement far more than they will ever need us.