Captain Harry McNulty and his Ireland team-mates celebrate with their silver medals following the Cup final at the Emirates Dubai 7s ©INPHO/Martin Seras Lima
Showing impressive coolness in the intense Dubai heat, the Ireland Men’s Sevens team (sponsored by TritonLake) picked up their second silver medal in five HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournaments.
Hard-fought wins over Argentina (19-14) and the USA (12-7), with Mark Roche breaking from a scrum for a memorable extra-time winner against the Eagles, saw Ireland reach their first Cup final of the new season.
James Topping’s men, who contested their maiden World Series decider in Toulouse last May, had to be content with silver again as a resurgent South Africa scored three first half tries to emerge as 21-5 winners.
Jack Kelly crossed for Ireland’s only try, but most importantly their hard work across the weekend delivered 19 World Series points as they moved up to fourth in the overall standings.
The competition on the circuit is fiercer than even before, with the prize of Olympic Games Paris 2024 qualification on offer for the top four teams at the end of this season’s World Series.
Captained by Harry McNulty in Dubai, the Ireland Men move on to the Cape Town Sevens next week, the final leg before Christmas. The Ireland Women will be there too following their sixth place finish in Dubai.
The silver medal success adds to the impressive list of recent achievements by the IRFU Men’s Sevens Programme, at the top of which is Topping’s side winning bronze at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town. Terry Kennedy and McNulty earned Dream Team selection.
The current squad watched on with pride as three former Sevens regulars, Jimmy O’Brien, Hugo Keenan and Robert Baloucoune, helped the Ireland 15s team win all three of their Bank of Ireland Nations Series games in November.
Kennedy, last season’s World Series top try scorer and Dream Team member, received the World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year award last month. Currently on a sabbatical in Australia, the loss of the player-maker is a significant one.
Yet, as seen by this weekend’s results, other players stepped up in his absence to ensure the Ireland Men finished on a World Series podium for only the third time, including 2018’s breakthrough bronze in London.
Aaron O’Sullivan pointed the way for Ireland against Argentina, swooping on a loose offload by German Schulz and breaking clear from halfway for a try inside the opening minute.
Niall Comerford got a hand to the restart, with the Irish ball retention seeing them move the Pumas from side to side. They got more possession from another wayward pass by Schulz, which was picked off by O’Sullivan.
Again they took the fifth seeds through the phases, grasping their opportunity when Gaston Revol was on the ground. McNulty and Sean Cribbin combined to send Zac Ward over on the left, making it 12-0 for half-time.
Argentina built momentum from the restart, scoring within a minute through Matias Osadczuk. His try was converted and they prevented the freshly-introduced Conroy from streaking clear, Rodrigo Isgro landing an important tackle.
When the South Americans were next on the attack, they put Schulz into space and he stretched out for the line, with the TMO review rubberstamping the try. Replacement Juan Manuel Molinuevo’s well-struck conversion edged them in front.
Kelly plucked down the restart with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, the ball worked out to both wings before McNulty put Conroy haring down the left wing. He cut inside Alejo Lavayen and scampered all the way to the line for a terrific solo score.
The extras from the left-footed Hugo Lennox left five points between the sides, and with Andrew Smith frustrating the Pumas with a turnover penalty, Ireland had booked their passage through to the last-four.
The Cup semi-final against the USA was another bruising affair, McNulty and Roche both driving their legs in contact to bring Ireland forward early on.
The breakthrough came in the fourth minute, Ward showing his power and pace to evade both Joe Schroeder and Kevon Williams to run in his third try of the tournament. Roche converted.
The remainder of the first half saw both defences give very little away, McNulty stealing a lineout to rob the Eagles of a promising attacking platform. In addition, Ireland were making their tackles stick out wide.
With 10 minutes on the clock, the US got back on level terms. Replacement Malacchi Esdale bounced off a tackle from Bryan Mollen, drew in Conroy and released speedster Perry Baker to score from the edge of the Irish 22.
Steve Tomasin supplied the conversion which eventually took the game to extra-time, Ireland were getting back into scoring range off a series of penalties but a late lineout failed to work out.
The first period of extra-time saw Ireland force the issue, Lennox narrowly overcooking a penalty to touch before Mollen earned a turnover penalty to quickly launch the men in green forward again.
Following a forward pass thrown by Baker on his own 22, there was barely a minute left. Roche stole a march on US captain Williams, using quick ball from the scrum to attack the short side and gleefully run in the golden point score.
The Ireland Men’s second ever Cup final appearance on the circuit saw them come up against the Blitzboks, who had the HSBC player-of-the-final in Shilton van Wyk.
He stepped inside Cribbin and accelerated through for a try after just 19 seconds, and more silky footwork from van Wyk had him evading Conroy to score again in the fifth minute. Ireland were 14-0 down.
McNulty slowed the tempo through a series of penalties, calling on Cribbin to kick for touch. Just when Ireland were getting into scoring range, Siviwe Soyizwapi swooped for a midfield interception and was too fast to be caught.
Now 21 points in arrears, Smith led Ireland’s fight-back with his direct running early in the second period. Muller du Plessis ripped possession away from Conroy, but the white shirts were soon back on the attack via a hard-earned penalty.
Kelly got them off the mark in the 11th minute, McNulty pressing from the lineout before the Dublin University clubman tapped a penalty to reach over in the right corner. Roche’s conversion stayed wide on the near side.
Crucially though, South Africa remained in control of the scoreboard as the clock wound down. There were no further scoring opportunities for either team as Ireland’s quest for a first World Series gold came up short.