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Recent Sevens graduates highlight success of Ireland's pathway system


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Hugo Keenan, left, and Shane Daly are pictured during an Ireland senior training session last week

Hugo Keenan, left, and Shane Daly are pictured during an Ireland senior training session last week

Hugo Keenan, left, and Shane Daly are pictured during an Ireland senior training session last week

Back in October 2014, when the IRFU announced their intention to relaunch Ireland's Sevens programme for the coming season, the benefits were seen as two-fold.

On the one hand, Ireland would have representation in a rapidly growing sport which was being played by most other leading nations, while on the other, the playing pool was to be extended, meaning fewer players were likely to fall through the cracks of the Irish system.

The second point was always going to be a major priority for the Ireland head coach, because if a player captured the attention on the Sevens circuit, the option to return to the larger code would naturally present itself.

The union have been clever in how they have gone about their business, as they have built a strong core of Sevens specialists, mixed with provincial players whose skill-sets were seen as needing refinement.

Of the six uncapped players included in Ireland's Six Nations squad, three of them came through the Sevens system. Hugo Keenan, Shane Daly and Will Connors have proved how beneficial sevens can be.

As talented as the trio were in their underage days, they could easily have been lost to the Irish system, had they sought game-time elsewhere, rather than agreeing to give Sevens a crack.

Provincial coaches have come on board with the idea too, which is why we are increasingly seeing more young players trying their hand at the shorter code.

On Saturday, the IRFU held their first inaugural Academy Sevens tournament, which included a plethora of senior players, and on the back of its success, it is hoped that it will become an annual event.

Had things worked out differently, Keenan, Daly and Connors could well have been lining out for Ireland alongside the likes of Jordan Conroy and Billy Dardis, but instead they found themselves training across the way in the IRFU's High Performance Centre, under Andy Farrell.

It has been quite the rise for Keenan and Daly, who weren't even named in Ireland's initial Six Nations squad, while Connors has gone from strength to strength since earning his first call-up earlier this year.

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Lockdown came at a bad time for Connors, as there had been a strong suggestion that the Leinster openside was in line for his debut in the postponed meeting with Italy.

Eight months on from Ireland's last Six Nations clash, Connors, along with his fellow Sevens protégés Keenan and Daly, are in the mix to feature against Italy this weekend.

Connors has been excellent for Leinster in recent months, and although he was handed a bit of a lesson at scrum time in the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens, the Kildare native edged ahead of Josh van der Flier in the pecking order.

With Peter O'Mahony having had to self-isolate after being identified as a close contact of one of Munster's confirmed Covid-19 cases, Connors may well force his way into the match-day 23 on Saturday.

Much of that will depend on how Farrell sees the make-up of his back-row, but if Caelan Doris and CJ Stander are to start, then it may well be that both Connors and Josh van der Flier feature at some stage.

There is a similar opening in the back-three, where injuries to Jordan Larmour and Keith Earls have given Farrell a few unwanted headaches.

If Larmour had been fit, it would have been fascinating to see where he fitted into the picture because having switched positions with Keenan, from full-back to the wing, in recent weeks, Farrell had options.

As it is, Ireland are seriously lacking an experienced out-and-out full-back, which paves the way for Keenan and Daly.

An ill-timed injury won't have helped the fit-again Daly's chances of starting against Italy, while Keenan will hope that he has done enough.

The fact that Farrell opted against calling up a replacement for Larmour would suggest that perhaps the Ireland boss has a trick up his sleeve a la Robbie Henshaw moving to full-back in last year's Six Nations defeat to England.

Regardless of what way Farrell goes, Connors, Keenan and Daly have certainly made an impression during their first few days in camp.

"They will bring a lot to the squad - an energy that is relentless really, in all three of them," Farrell said.

"They have got fantastic attitudes and it's what's needed to grow on the international ladder. The potential is there for everyone to see. We have to make sure we bring that out.

"From what I've seen and from what I know they are stellar students of the game. That's 100 per cent for sure. They're clever boys that seem to be able to pick things up pretty quickly. I've no doubt the potential is going to be fantastic going forward for Ireland."

How soon that potential gets unleashed on the international stage will be up to Farrell, but five years on from rebooting the national Sevens programme, there is no doubt that Irish rugby continues to reap the rewards.


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