Ireland’s Sevens squad ready to make the most of opportunities, says James Topping

Head coach has taken Ireland’s participation from occasional jolly to serious excursion as they prepare for this weekend’s Dubai Sevens Series

James Topping’s involvement with Sevens dates to his time as a player, although Ireland’s participation then was more an occasional jolly than a concerted development programme.

The former Ballymena winger won eight caps for Ireland (1996-2003) at 15s, and played more than 100 matches for Ulster - during which time he won a European Cup (1999), Celtic Cup (2003), Celtic League (2006) and an All-Ireland league Division One title (2003) with his club side.

When David Nucifora and Anthony Eddy decided to adopt a more serious tone on Sevens as a pathway, reviving and revamping the programme, Topping represented an obvious choice. He has gone from manager to head coach of the men’s Sevens team and in the process overseen an unprecedented level of success.

Following on from playing in the 2019 Olympics in Japan, the squad became the first Ireland men’s Sevens team to reach a final on the World Series circuit last May in Toulouse, losing the final to Fiji, and in September they won a bronze medal at the Sevens World Cup.


Earlier this month at the iconic Hong Kong Sevens tournament, they led 19-5 against the eventual champions Australia in the quarter-final before succumbing to a rat-a-tat three-try salvo from their opponents. It was a gut-wrenching defeat, and one of which the squad are keen to divest themselves, an opportunity they’ll get in Dubai this weekend and Cape Town the following one.

From a starting point of competing in the lowest grade of Sevens in Europe, they are now on the World Series. Quite apart from the physical and technical improvement, a change of mindset was required. Topping explained: “At that start it was great to go to these tournaments, these countries, the weather was good and there were a lot of distractions.

“The guys are knuckling down, wanting to perform and they can see that if they perform, they can win games. Obviously, it is a big carrot this year to be able to qualify for the Olympics [in France in 2024].

“Beforehand we were just a wee bit thin on the ground. Maybe had 12 guys going to a tournament and only two left at home not getting selected. Now we have maybe eight not selected and the guys know that there is pressure coming from behind.”

Last year’s World Series and the World Cup demonstrated that Ireland can successfully compete at the highest level when properly attuned. Ireland’s World Player of the Year Terry Kennedy has taken a year out to work in Australia but will return to the programme. It’s up to others to pick up that mantle, including the 50 tries he scored last season on the circuit.

Ireland travels in expectation now. Topping said: “We realise these opportunities like the World Cup, [and] Hong Kong, we must make more of these, do ourselves justice. They [the squad] have a bit more edge, bite and hunger about them. That’s a very important thing.”

Irish rugby has sent four squads to Dubai: the elite Men’s and Women’s, and two more will take part in the respective Invitational tournaments. A higher profile for Sevens in Ireland means that players are actively requesting places in the programme.

The men’s invitational squad includes three Australian-born, Irish-qualified (IQ) players in Will Goddard (full-back, Sydney University), Liam McNamara (outhalf, 25, played one match for the Reds, Australian Sevens, Ayrshire Bulls in Scotland) and Connor O’Sullivan (centre, Lansdowne, University of Western Australia).

Last year’s Ireland Under-20 Grand Slam winners Aitzol King and Dylan O’Grady, Hubert Gilvarry, a scrumhalf from Sligo, Lansdowne’s Sean Galvin, Nick Green (Garryowen) and another Irish-qualified player in Sion Cowdy, originally from Bristol, are part of the group in Dubai.

That squad will be coached by former Aussie Sevens player Sam Myers who is on an internship with the IRFU and also works with the men’s and women’s elite squads. Topping is unequivocal about Sevens being “another pathway to play 15-a-side.”

He continued: “Our programme is based on skills, passing, rucking and tackling. We want to get guys who can perform at a high level in Sevens, and if their province comes knocking and needs them, they are able to go into that straight away.

“We are not going to play like Fiji. We want to play rugby that is transferable with Irish rugby and the pathway. The guys that come in get a lot out of it. You look at Ireland versus Australia and the Autumn [Nations] Series, there were players there who came through the Sevens (system). Let’s do what Irish rugby is good at and that would be our focus.”

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer