Tuesday 20 August 2019

IRFU must pull heads out of sand and embrace Sevens

Jonah Lomu, taking on Fiji in 1998, honed his skills playing Sevens. Photo: Laurence Griffiths / Allsport
Jonah Lomu, taking on Fiji in 1998, honed his skills playing Sevens. Photo: Laurence Griffiths / Allsport
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Thank God for David Nucifora. Well it's probably a little early in his tenure as IRFU performance director to be crediting him with dragging his new employers into the real world of Sevens rugby, but signs are that the blind and deaf in Lansdowne Road are finally prepared to see and hear.

I'll believe it when we see it, but word is, the enthusiasm of Nucifora for the abbreviated version of the game - and more importantly his grasp on its relevance to the development of rugby in this country - is beginning to take hold.

From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow. Bear in mind, we are the only major rugby-playing nation that has steadfastly refused to participate in the global development of the shortened game - and guess what, the Sevens train has long left the station. The loss is ours, not theirs.

I have yet to hear the IRFU spell out why it is they deem Sevens no-go territory. One can only assume it is for reasons financial, because beyond that there is no justification whatsoever. Either that or every other rugby nation has got it wrong.

The game originated in Scotland, Melrose to be precise, and was played on this island far and wide long before professionalism kicked in.

Tournaments

For years, the rugby season here always finished by way of the Old Belvedere Sevens in Anglesea Road. There were annual Sevens tournaments in Galway (the Blake Sevens) every Easter Monday, Omagh in May, and the Kinsale Sevens kicked in around 1985 if memory serves me right. And there were others too,

The late, great Colm Tucker was instrumental in setting up the Munster Sevens, which led to qualification for the prestigious Heineken Cup Sevens in Amsterdam - an international tournament still going to this day.

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Apart from the above, I played in many Sevens events across Europe and the UK. In 1986 along Fergus Slattery managed and I captained an Irish team at a Sport Aid (Bob Geldof-inspired) International Sevens tournament in Cardiff Arms Park, alongside New Zealand, Scotland, England, France, Australia, Wales and a Rest of the World team.

Slattery had been central to an Irish side which made it through to the Scottish Centenary final only to be beaten by England (22-18) at Murrayfield in 1973. As well as Slattery that Irish squad included Pat Whelan, Wallace McMaster, Vinny Becker, Seamus Dennison, Donal Canniffe, Kevin Mays, Terry Moore and Mike Gibson.

Steve Smith, David Duckham, Andy Ripley, Roger Uttley, Peter Preece, Keith Fielding and Fran Cotton contributed to a star-studded English line-up.

In '86, Donal Spring, Willie Burns, Terry McMaster, Paddy Kenny and Tom Morley were some of those on board in Cardiff.

Among the stars appearing at the 1986 event were David Campese, Glen Ella, Peter Morgan, Elgan Rees, John Jeffrey, Finlay Calder, Keith Robertson, Roger Baird, Zinzan Brooke, David Kirk, Frano Botica, John Kirwan, Terry Wright, Les Cusworth, Mickey Skinner and Richard Moon.

Point being that we in this country have a history and tradition in Sevens stretching way back, and at the highest levels too. It's not as if we are wet behind the ears, yet we have fallen well behind countries like Portugal, the US, Kenya, Canada when it comes to the shorter version of the game.

With the Italian Federation now committed we are out on a limb. It is indefensible, and I defy someone, anyone, in Lansdowne Road to justify why.

That is the most galling element of all. Here is a game which emphasises the basic skills and allows a player express himself in the rudiments, ie, running, passing, supporting, but more than anything attacking space with purpose and not as part of a robotic pre-rehearsed coach-driven formula.

The 15-a-side game now is fuelled by power, making the offload at contact as close as it gets to creativity and manipulating space.

We are told one format doesn't feed into the other. Who makes this stuff up?

Yes it has become more specialised, but tell me that All Blacks stars Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu, Joe Rokocoko, Mils Muliaina, Rico Gear, Cory Jane, Ben Smith or Liam Messam didn't benefit from their time working under Gordon Tietjens in the New Zealand Sevens set-up.

Good enough to justify investment from the NZRU but not the Irish governing body. Little elaboration necessary.

Both forms of the game should be an integral part of rugby's future. The skill-sets come under the same rugby umbrella. Show me a good 15-a-side player and I'll show you a good Sevens exponent and vice versa.

We have had Rory McInerney's Wild Geese as well as Colin McEntee's U-19 FIRA squad coached by former London Irish, Ulster and Connacht scrum half Kieran Campbell earlier this year. I recognised two names - Harrison Brewer and Greg O'Shea - on the original selection and that is as it should be.

There are so many enthusiastic young players out there champing at the bit to give Sevens a go and maybe work their way circuitously towards a full-time 15-a-side contract.

Is that not spreading the rugby gospel towards inclusivity in a much more meaningful and productive way? A financial investment worth its weight in gold. So it might cost close to €1m to fund a squad, but there's serious payback.

Stick to your guns, David. For sure you've got it right.

 

Little sister could overtake big brother

That I am a supporter of Sevens Rugby can be gleaned from the main piece.

I believe in Sevens, not least because of its potential role in skill development.

I do have one reservation, however, and it pertains to Rio 2016. I suspect that once the thrill-a-minute truncated version is introduced to a global audience via the Olympics, the main code could be under pressure from within.

I suspect also that Sevens could become the centrepiece of every Olympic games going forward, such is the vibrancy of a spectacle that will be new to so many.

It is here World Rugby (former IRB) must tread warily, as Sevens threatens to become the equivalent of Twenty20 cricket. Like it or loathe it , the new, shortened cricketing format has been fantastic for what was once the quintessential boring old English village game.

Far from fighting what is effectively a little sister code, I urge Unions home and abroad to embrace the guaranteed new-found interest for all it is worth.

It is but one of many reasons why the IRFU have got it so wrong. Prepare for Sevens take-off.

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