Watching 21-year-old Alex Cuthbert counter-attacking with confidence during Wales’ 27-13 win over Scotland on Sunday, it was easy to see his background in sevens rugby. Every time Scotland sent a poor kick to Leigh Halfpenny at fullback, Cuthbert was immediately off his right wing, head up and spotting openings. While lots of attention focused on the 6’6″ winger’s strength to go through Greg Laidlaw’s tackle for his try, there was less applause for the three occasions Cuthbert scythed through Scotland on the counter-attack.
Added to that understanding of space was the intelligence and footwork the Blues wide man showed to set up Halfpenny’s first try. Cuthbert spotted Lee Jones (Scotland 14) coming up hard off the defensive line, so slowed almost to a halt in order to give himself the time and space to burst around his opposite number and supply the scoring pass for Halfpenny. This fleeting piece of skill again betrayed Cuthbert’s sevens history. In the seven man game, preserving space then bursting past opposition is essential.
Cuthbert played for the Wales sevens team during the IRB World Sevens Series in both the ’09/’10 and ’10/’11 seasons, as well as at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Alongside him in that squad was another star of last weekend’s clash with Scotland, openside Aaron Shingler. Indeed, looking at the list of ex-Wales sevens players it’s clear why Wales coach Warren Gatland says that the code “has been an avenue for a few of our players.”
James Hook, Lee Byrne, George North, Andy Powell and Josh Turnbull have all turned out for Wales sevens teams in the recent past. The electric 18-year-old Harry Robinson is the latest man to have made the step up after being included in Wales’ Six Nations training squad. Wales use the sevens game in an intelligent manner, giving young players with potential the chance to play for their country in a relatively pressurised atmosphere as well as increasing certain skills that are key to the union code of the game.
The example of Wales is used here because they are a rugby nation with relatively similar playing numbers to Ireland. According to the latest IRB figures, there are 25,440 senior (over-18) male rugby union players in Ireland. Wales is slightly behind with 22,408. So despite having less players to choose from, Wales makes far better use of the sevens code to increase the quality of players in their international union squad.
Ireland currently has no sevens team. The last time Ireland were represented internationally was at the Sevens World Cup in 2009. James Coughlan, Paul Marshall and Felix Jones were all involved in that tournament as Ireland lost to Zimbabwe in the Bowl final. Six Nations rivals England, France, Scotland and Wales are all part of the 12 ‘core’ teams in the Sevens World Series at the moment.
Despite the IRB’s announcement last week that they will be increasing this core group to 15, we have still heard nothing from the IRFU. The qualifying tournament for those three new places will be held on 23rd-25th March at the Hong Kong Sevens. That event is probably too early, but the IRFU seriously need to consider the advantages of having a sevens team on the world circuit.
The commonly accepted excuse is that the IRFU doesn’t have the necessary funds to run a sevens team. By changing their priorities they surely could. Wales chose to have a sevens team rather than an ‘A’ team like the Irish Wolfhounds. Having only played one meaningless friendly against the English Saxons this season, how worthwhile is the Wolfhounds team? Bringing a group of players together for a one-off match with no chance of real reward is basically what the Wolfhounds set-up entails right now.
That money could be better spent on allowing young Irish players to get out on the sevens circuit alongside continuing development with their provinces. Another potential avenue of funding a sevens team is being more selective in giving central IRFU contracts to players in their 30s (eg. Paddy Wallace, Denis Leamy). How much more can these players really offer Ireland at international level? Would that money not be better spent on increasing the quality and exposure of talented young players?
Getting a team into the IRB World Sevens Series would open up a potentially massive money-making event in the Dublin Sevens at the Aviva. The government should be pushing this idea to the IRFU, as they too would benefit from the influx of tourists attracted by an event like this. The excuse of funding doesn’t really apply here and the IRFU must stop resting on their laurels around this issue. With good planning, an Ireland sevens team could benefit our economy as well as, most importantly, our senior international side!
The prospect of guys like Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway, Fionn Carr, Rhys Ruddock, Tiernan O’Halloran, Peter O’Mahony and Ali Birch playing sevens in an Irish jersey is an exciting one. The IRFU needs to get a sevens team up and running. Hopefully, they start to see the advantages it could bring. As the Welsh model has shown, the sevens code can give union players unique and relevant skills.
Photos courtesy: Chris Dickey, Ivan O’Riordan.