IN 2001, Ireland were knocked out of the semi-finals of the Bowl competition at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Argentina by Portugal, having lost group games to the hosts, Fiji, and Russia and having managed only a draw with South Korea.
It was only two years ago, with rugby’s Olympic return on the horizon, that the IRFU threw its full weight behind the se7ens programme.
Now Limerick will host the World Club Se7ens for the second year, and some of the world’s best sides will head to the west of Ireland to play a sport which is slowly catching up with its XV-a-side brother.
That ill-fated trip to Argentina nearly 15 years ago was the first taste of world-class international se7ens for Conor McPhillips, who at the time was yet to sign for a professional side, but who will now lead Connacht’s side in Limerick as they face some of the world’s best se7ens players.
“Pat (Lam) gave me the chance to do this, and it’s been nice to share my experiences and insight in the game, ” said McPhillips.
“The game is fairly different from 15s, but there is plenty of crossover. You’re still running at people, trying to beat players, there’s still tackling and there’s still a breakdown, but the difference is you’re doing it under tremendous fatigue, and you can be seriously exposed.
“There are great individuals and they can score great tries, but the strength of se7ens is your unity as a seven.
“If you don’t work together as a seven in defence and attack systems you can be exposed as an individual, and made to look silly by quality opposition.
“The home teams are behind the eight ball a little in terms of experience, but the majority of them will be pro players, and it’s a great chance for them to prove their worth to the coaches.
“Hopefully it’ll do a lot for se7ens as a whole in Ireland. Se7ens is still in its infancy here, and even some of the tier-two nations have a big head start on us.”
While there is little doubt that Ireland have been late to the se7ens party, the lure of a shot at an Olympic medal is proving a strong incentive for some of rugby’s biggest names.
Two of McPhillips’ 2001 team-mates, captain James Topping and Colm McMahon, will take charge of the Ulster and Munster teams, which McPhillips believes is no coincidence.
“I think people would be surprised at how many young Irish coaches there are with a high level of se7ens experience, and it’s good that they can pass on the knowledge to a more high performance environment.
“There’s a huge pool of resources for the Ireland se7ens programme to dip into and use them where they can. I know they ran big talent identification programmes last year, even looking at crossover sports like GAA and basketball – you might find some se7ens diamonds in there.
“There are a lot of professional players who are willing to give it shot. Not many guys in the world get the chance to go to the Olympics.
“I’m glad they want to play for Ireland, because at the moment the Irish se7ens side is made up of academy players and club players, but if you look at New Zealand and Australia, there are some big names there that are willing to step out of Super Rugby to compete for the chance to go to Rio.”
And of course the Limerick World Se7ens gives McPhillips the chance to get one over on his old team-mates.
“They gave me my first flavour of se7ens and I was only a teenager. Playing with James and Colm was a real highlight at the time, so the Limerick World Club Se7ens will be a bit of a reunion.
“That was nearly 15 years ago now – that doesn’t sound great for me now I hear it! – but it will add a bit of spice to those fixtures and bit of banter flying around.”