‘This can inspire young women to play for their country because this is an amazing sport and it suits our DNA’
Lucy Mulhall insists that her Ireland Sevens team will be targeting a medal in Paris next summer, ten years after the squad took their first tentative steps on the long road to Olympic qualification.
Ireland’s Men have already appeared at one Olympic Games and, although they have won a World Cup bronze medal, they returned empty-handed from Tokyo last time out.
But Tinahely woman Mulhall genuinely believes that her squad, who have belatedly planted a glowing smile on a troubled season for Irish women’s rugby, can medal in Paris.
“It’s taken so long and we’ve done so much work to get here so it’s great to have a year to focus on performing really well at Olympic level,” said a buoyant Mulhall, still standing in the middle of Toulouse’s Stade Ernest-Wallon, where a 10-5 win against Fiji confirmed Ireland’s qualification.
“This will grow the game but winning a medal will grow it even more and that will be our goal now. It’s massive for the game. It’s exciting we have time now to build towards that.
“We just want to grow the game and show women there are plenty of good news stories out there. This can inspire young women to play for their country because this is an amazing sport and it suits our DNA.”
Mulhall, surrounded by family and friends, including father, Pat, and fiancée, Michael, was tearful as she reflected on what was arguably the longest 14 minutes since the Sevens programme began back in 2014.
“It’s just very surreal. Happiness, I guess, is the main feeling. We obviously had a good start to the season, then we had a blip.
“It was just amazing. We started to play good rugby again when we needed it. The game was so up and down against Fiji, a winners take all effort.
“Our defence was massive, especially in the second-half, when we were mostly in our own half.
“But it never seemed like a question that they were going to score as we were so connected. And Stacey (Flood) won the penalty in the last play, really typifying the effort of everyone.”
Mulhall also praised the work of sports psychologist, Siobhain McArdle, the former University of Pennsylvania distance runner and rower, who has recently linked up with both Sevens and 15s outfits to provide much-needed support.
McArdle, who was born in Australia to Cavan and Tipperary parents, grew up in Canada but now lives in Ireland and has had over twenty years experience working in elite sport that has included successfully supporting Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
“That’s been amazing, a real turning point,” agreed Mulhall. “She has really been so good at helping us be present, shaking off external noises and any lack of confidence and helping us to connect in the moment.”
Ireland were backed by hundreds of supporters in Toulouse.
“I get shivers thinking about it. It’s like it’s meant to be. To have all our family here. And you can see the growth in the last couple of years.
“We had some random people who came over to support us, not connected to any families, young kids wearing Ireland Sevens jerseys.
“Just because they are now fans of Sevens Rugby and our team. It’s amazing to share with people who are normally at home in bed, or even those who can’t be here, the ones who pick you up at the airport when you’re feeling down.”
Although Sevens was added to the Olympic rota in 2009, the IRFU did not decide to become involved until a few years later, and the carrot of government investment through Sport Ireland was a keen persuasive influence.
However, the programme which commenced at the same time as Ireland won a Six Nations Grand Slam has been littered with controversies, mostly outside of their control.
The rapid decline in fortunes of the XV’s side has highlighted the fact that most of Ireland’s best back-line players are featuring for the Sevens, including Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe and Beibhinn Parsons.
Many within the sport have felt that the crutch of government funds has diverted the IRFU’s attention and resources away from a XV side.
They will operate in the third tier of world rugby for the next two seasons as their Sevens’ counterparts plot their path to Paris.
The government have provided more than €5m to Sevens rugby but it is unclear how much the IRFU invest in the product. That may now change after this success.
The Olympic Rugby Sevens competition runs from July 24-30, 2024, at the Stade de France in Paris.
IRFU Chief Executive Kevin Potts said; "On behalf of the IRFU and the wider Irish rugby community, I would like to offer my congratulations to the players, led by inspirational Captain, Lucy Mulhall, and management of the Ireland Women's Sevens team on their qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
"A huge amount of hard work has gone on behind the scenes for the last number of years to reach this historic milestone and it is testament to the dedication, talent and resilience of the players that they have qualified for the Olympics.
"Olympic Qualification was a stated aim for the IRFU in this cycle and I would like to pay tribute to all in our High-Performance Department, and everyone connected with the team for this seismic day, not just for rugby, but for Irish sport in general."
The historic Olympic qualifiers coached by Allen Temple-Jones.
Kathy Baker (Blackrock College RFC)
Claire Boles (Railway Union RFC)
Megan Burns (Blackrock College RFC)
Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union RFC)
Stacey Flood (Railway Union RFC)
Katie Heffernan (Railway Union RFC)
Eve Higgins (Railway Union RFC)
Erin King (Old Belvedere RFC)
Emily Lane (Blackrock College RFC)
Kate Farrell McCabe (Suttonians RFC)
Anna McGann (Railway Union RFC)
Lucy Mulhall (Wicklow RFC) (capt)
Béibhinn Parsons (Blackrock College RFC)