Rio games beckon for magnificent Sevens
Ireland ladies proving unlikely success story as they bid to seal Olympic spot
THE notion of qualifying for the Olympics may have brought them together but, when a group of women assembled in April 2012, they first had to learn the game that could get them there.
Sevens rugby has never been top of the Irish agenda and it was almost completely new to the women's game, but the prospect of Rio in 2016 had given the impetus to starting a programme with the ambition to get to Brazil and compete at the top level.
Trials were held and a squad was assembled and when the new team took part in their first tournament at last year's Kinsale Sevens, they openly admit they were finding their way.
A collection of current internationals and Sevens specialists who ply their trade in the women's All-Ireland League, they have worked their way up the ranks over the past 13 months and next season they will be dining at the top table of the Women's Sevens game after capping the breakthrough year for women's rugby in Ireland by qualifying to become an elite nation on the IRB Sevens circuit.
They did it on the last day of last month at the Sevens World Cup in Moscow, beating South Africa and China in the pool stages to reach the last eight of the competition and secure their status as a core nation for next season.
It has been quite a journey for a group of amateur players whose achievement is even more impressive given they are up against full-time athletes from Olympic programmes.
It has required a big effort, according to UL Bohemians' Jeannette Feighery, who has been there all the way.
"We've probably done better than we should have, to be fair, we've been coming up against professional teams who are full-time rugby players," she said.
"We've always done unbelievably well against them. Since I started playing rugby for Ireland, it has been instilled into us that everything you do will be hard work but it will be worth it. That's the ethos that has given us so much heart and pride.
"When you are a part of it and you buy into it, you are capable of producing these amazing results against professional teams when we are combining our 9-5, Monday to Friday job and then training all day Saturday and Sunday.
"It is incredible to see what you can do when you have that heart, that pride and want to do it for the rest of the team and the girls around you."
This year's success does not mean that their Olympic goal is secured – there is still a way to go until they can book those flights.
The World Cup in Moscow was the toughest test they had experienced, the first time they had faced five games in 48 hours, but they came through it with their aims matched.
On June 29 they beat the South Africans 12-5 but lost to holders Australia 22-5. Their clash with China at the Luzhniki Stadium was all-important and they proved too strong, winning 28-10 to secure their progress.
However, the following day they lost to the USA in the quarter-finals of the Cup and to England in the semi-final of the Plate, but the mission had been accomplished and, having learned from all of their experiences so far, they will add it to the bank ahead of next year's schedule.
The first route to Rio will be determined on the circuit in 2014/15, so maintaining their status next season will be crucial. There will then be regional pathways in, but with so many countries operating full-time structures it will not be an easy ride for the Irish side. From next season they will have more IRFU funding as part of a yet to be finalised centralised programme, and some players will have to make a call on whether they can make the commitment involved.
That decision can wait for the deserved summer holidays, particularly for those Grand Slam winners like Alison Miller and Lynne Cantwell who have been on the go for so long and whose schedule involved going directly from Italy to Hong Kong for the Sevens
"Girls were juggling training camps for the Six Nations and the Sevens and the day after the Italian game the girls went straight to Hong Kong," Offaly native Feighery added.
"It was a big juggling act, you could probably write February and March off as preparation time because there was so much going on. It has been an incredible few months coming off the girls winning the Six Nations and it has been amazing to be part of it all.
"Getting to Rio will be an incredibly hard task, but we have to just work at it on the circuit next year. That will be brilliant for us."
They can enjoy a well-earned rest this summer before beginning plans for joining the circuit next summer.
The road to Rio lies in front of them and there will be plenty of tough corners to negotiate, but at least they are on it and are very much in the running.