Matt Williams calls for Ireland to play Rugby 7′s

Updated: January 16, 2012

Rugby Union 15s appeared for the first time at the Paris 1900 Olympic Games and was on the programme of the 1908, 1920 and 1924 Games. It has not featured on the programme since, but will re-appear for the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

At the 121st IOC Session held in Copenhagen in October 2009 , it was decided to re-include rugby in the Olympic programme. Golf was also added at that session. So Rugby will return in Rio in 2016, with a men’s and a women’s rugby 7s tournament, each with 12 teams.

Now we can but hope that the IRFU gives the go ahead as a matter of urgency for Ireland to join the countries wishing to become one of the 12 teams that qualify but if that is to happen then “internal politics” need to be set aside so that Ireland’s leading exponents of the sevens game, men and women are given the opportunity of representing their country in the Olympics, sports greatest festival. There is no greater honour for any sports star than being chosen to represent Ireland at the Olympics. Some may opt NOT to take part and that is their right but all who qualify to represent Ireland should at least have an opportunity to make that decision.

Matt Williams is a pioneer of Professional Coaching in Rugby. He has been a professional coach for over sixteen years. He is well known of course in Ireland from his days as Coach of Leinster, Ireland A and later of Scotland.

In Matt’s three years at Leinster he “was part of a great group of men” who rose through the European rankings from thirty five to second. Leinster won the inaugural Celtic League Final and were Semi Finalists of the European Cup.

So when Matt Williams calls for the IRFU to embrace Rugby 7s and give Ireland’s players, male and female, an opportunity to test their skills against the world’s best we should ‘sit up and listen’. Williams also contributes regularly to Irish media and today via the ‘Irish Times’ he addresses an “ Open Letter” to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. To simply publish brief extracts from his ‘open letter’ would do Williams an injustice so SportsNewsIreland takes the opportunity of publishing his communication in its entirety.

Having read his views what do YOU, our readers, think? Do you agree with Matt Williams or disagree?

Our readers would also like to hear from the I.R.F.U on what plans are ‘in the pipeline’ if any for Irish participation in the qualifying rounds of the 2016 Olympics and SportsNewsIreland will be delighted to include any response – in full.

And now to Matt Williams communication, to Enda Kenny via the “Irish Times”:


In these tough economic times I am writing to you and respectfully requesting your assistance to introduce an exciting new business to Ireland. It would boost the country economically, give Ireland worldwide publicity and have a positive long-term effect financially and culturally.

Taoiseach, the business of sport is based on creating events and the great economic benefits these bring to the region that hosts them.

On a recent trip to Australia I was struck by the huge success of the IRB Sevens rugby tournament held last December on the Queensland Gold Coast.

In the period immediately prior to and after the tournament, cash flowed into ticket sales, hotels, retail, restaurants, pubs, airlines and entertainment facilities. This was a major windfall to the local business community and the government through the Australian equivalent of VAT.

It was also estimated that many hundreds of the tournament visitors stayed in Queensland for a holiday, further enhancing the economic benefits to the region.

According to Ron Clarke, Mayor of the Gold Coast and an Olympic medal winner in 1964, major international sporting events provide economic benefit for many years after.

Taoiseach, I know the IRB want the IRFU to host a sevens tournament in Dublin. That would benefit all of Ireland, not just Dublin.

The European Sevens tournaments are in June. No rugby is played in Ireland at that time and the GAA is just ramping up. It is a perfect window.

You see a Sevens tournament is not like the Six Nations or Heineken Cup. Sevens is a party and there is a new international audience that supports it. Like 20/20 cricket, they come to have fun and have a huge ‘hooley’. A large percentage would party on to other counties in Ireland.

For the last three years I have been lobbying for an IRB event at the Aviva. I have been “talking the talk” in public and private. I have met entrepreneurs interested in underwriting it and management companies interested in organising it. Yet for reasons that, up until now, have been unclear, I have drawn a blank.

More than a blank, I have drawn unexpected opposition.

Compare this to the attitude of CEO of the ARU, John O’Neill. John is financially conservative, yet he championed both the Australian Sevens team and the Gold Coast tournament. He has overseen the restructuring of the ARU Sevens programme that now involves mostly under-20 players.

That has led to Australia moving from “also rans” to winners. It has produced a major increase in the percentage of Sevens players who progress onto Super 15 rugby, so it’s a key factor in elite player development. The Gold Coast tournament underwrites the costs for the Sevens programme in Australia.

This model should and could be copied by Ireland.

Taoiseach, at the heart of this is the IRFU’s non-participation in the IRB Sevens tournaments. Ireland is the only major rugby-playing nation that does not compete on the IRB World tour. If Ireland does not compete they cannot host a tournament.

We suffer the indignity of countries like Kenya, Portugal, and Russia performing, while Ireland does not even enter.

Countries around the world are using Sevens to recruit new players as well as opening rugby to more women. The physical aspects are very different to 15-a-side.

The Queensland Rugby Union ran a programme called “Try Rugby Sevens”. It was piloted in 112 schools with 12,322 participants. It is a new sport for a new audience. Taoiseach, for a moment think local health. What saving to the community is a healthier society, with potentially thousands participating in a new sport? The IRFU have said programme costs were the major factor in not participating. The figure of €I million has been stated as the price. I believe that to be a very high figure, but let’s run with it. Let me put the cost into perspective.

The IRFU have recently released a policy of reducing the number of overseas players in Irish rugby, a policy I have been advocating for several years.

Three high-profile, overseas players cost the IRFU approximately €1 million. Implementing the new policy will see approximately 10 overseas players depart, saving the IRFU well over €1 million. Also, hosting the Dublin tournament would cover costs for the IRFU Sevens programme, as does the Gold Coast programme in Australia. As your friend Mr Obama would say: “Do the math.”

The positive social outcomes, the increase in participation numbers and the financial figures are overwhelming. The IRB even pay for flights and accommodation at the events. That every other rugby-playing country participate in Sevens might suggest Ireland has got it wrong.

There is another reason to be supportive.

As Sevens is now an Olympic sport, Ireland has a real chance to win medals. The incredible pool of talent and athleticism of Irish women, educated in GAA games and combined with a coordinated Sevens programme, will see Irish women in a position to ‘medal’ at Olympics.

If we start now a medal at Rio is possible. This is not just my opinion, but one held by leading IRFU figures.

Taoiseach, how wonderful for our country would it be to see an Irish team medal at the Olympic Games? Can you imagine the ‘shot in the arm’ that would give? Yet we are not going to enter the Olympics in Sevens, we are not allowing possible champions to participate at any IRB level of the sport.

This generation and the next, who have a real chance of success, are being denied the opportunity by the IRFU. Imagine the Irish Amateur Boxing Association denying Katie Taylor participation in international competition? I believe that non-participation is an internal IRFU political problem based on the participants’ declaration of country at the Olympics. Remember the IRFU represents the whole of Ireland.

Now, I coached in Ulster and will forever be indebted to people’s kindness and hospitality. I deeply enjoyed my time in Belfast.

Without being judgmental, it is not a certainty that Ulster players will declare for Ireland at an Olympics. That is the right of the players, not right or wrong but a reality.

Ulster players representing Ireland at the Olympics may not be acceptable to the Ulster representatives on the IRFU.

Under the Olympic agreement the Ulster players could play for Great Britain. That situation may not be acceptable for the IRFU members from the Republic.

This is a major political problem for the IRFU. While I empathise, the current policy has to end. Non-participation is an injustice to players. Part of the IRFU charter is to foster the game on this island. It is time officials realise the game is no longer just 15-a-side. By not participating the IRFU is not fulfilling its obligation under its own constitution.

It is time to change the policy. Rugby is a player’s game and the players must be allowed to play 15-a-side or seven-a-side.

Taoiseach, can you help? I am not very good at politics or diplomacy. They are not my strong point. To break this logjam requires a skill set which I do not possess.

Taoiseach, I respectfully ask you to stand up for our talented youth who have no voice. Please intervene to empower Irish athletes to show the world we can be winners. Like our 15-a-side teams have done, can you empower our talented youth and allow them to perform against the world, as equals as is their birth right, a right denied because of political manoeuvring.

Taoiseach please find a way, where I have failed.

Yours respectfully, Matthew Williams

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