The Ireland Men's Sevens squad beat three of the leading European teams - hosts France, Spain and Russia - to win the Clermont leg of the Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix Series and take a step closer to the overall title.
Anthony Eddy's determined side won all six of their games over the weekend in France, topping their pool yesterday in relatively comfortable fashion and then showing their ability to win three hard-fought knockout games by tight margins today.
Harry McNulty's converted try saw them overhaul les Bleus 7-5 in a tightly-contested Cup quarter-final this morning, before a scintillating solo try from top scorer Jordan Conroy inspired Ireland to a 17-5 semi-final victory over Spain.
That set up a rematch in the final with Russia who had defeated Eddy's men at the semi-final stage on the way to winning the Lodz event three weeks ago. This time it was Ireland who came out on top 17-14, Conroy weighing in with his 10th and 11th series tries either side of a Nick Timoney score.
Adding to their first place finish in Moscow last month, the Clermont 7s title edges Ireland two points clear of Russia at the top of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series standings - 56 to 54. Spain are third on 52 points, meaning it is still all to play for in the series' final leg in Exeter on July 15-16.
Ireland's 56-point haul from the first three tournaments has them on the cusp of qualifying for next summer's Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco. Only the top two Grand Prix Series finishers will make it through, so it remains a three-horse race at present.
The other aim of Eddy's squad this summer was to book their place at next year's HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series qualifying tournament in Hong Kong. And it is mission accomplished as their 56 points mean they are now guaranteed to take one of the two European berths on offer. Germany are next on 34 points with Italy, who now cannot catch Ireland, in third on 22.
The men in green are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Spain who regained their place as a core team on the World Sevens Series by winning April's Hong Kong qualifier. In fact, it was an all-European final with the Spanish prevailing 12-7 against Germany at the iconic Hong Kong Stadium.
A knee injury sidelined Mick McGrath in the opening match against Belgium yesterday, leaving Ireland down a player for their five remaining fixtures at Stade Gabriel Montpied. They kicked off day 2 against an athletic and pacy French team.
In a tight and bruising first half, Greg O'Shea was tackled into touch as Ireland were first to stretch their legs. However, much to the delight of the home crowd, an excellent break from his own 22 by Stephen Parez saw the supporting Gabin Villiere crash over for a second minute try.
There were doubts about the grounding as Ulster back rower Timoney seemed to get his arms under the ball, but the score was given by referee Richard Haughton who promptly sin-binned Timoney for a high tackle. The conversion was missed to the right and that proved vital in the end.
A try-saving intervention from Ian Fitzpatrick kept the deficit at five points before Timoney's return, and although French indiscipline invited Ireland forward, they were unable to break through from a late lineout opportunity in the hosts' 22.
The try they craved came just a minute into the second period, Timoney snapping up a loose ball and Keenan then grasping possession from a hotly-contested ruck. He fed McNulty who evaded a tackler to run in from the 10-metre line. Captain Billy Dardis landed the right-sided conversion for a 7-5 lead.
The concluding minutes were mostly played in the French half, with a McNulty-won ruck penalty and a Mark Roche break up the left wing winning Ireland some hard-earned territory. A mix-up with the match clock meant there was still time for a last-gasp French lineout but they then knocked on in midfield to confirm Ireland as narrow winners.
After a testing opening minute against semi-final opponents Spain, Hugo Keenan blocked a kick and carried up past the Spanish 10-metre line. A lineout platform saw Ireland build nicely with Timoney pumping his legs in the carry, but a subsequent knock-on from Fionn Carr let Spain off the hook.
A good Spanish kick chase and penalty pinned the men in green back, and with Carr infringing five metres out, a quick tap from Francisco Hernandez Jimenez garnered him the game's first try. It went unconverted, though, and after Spain leaked a costly penalty for side-entry amid a promising attack, neat passing off a lineout gave Conroy the chance to scorch up the right wing, burning off two defenders for a superb individual try.
Dardis was unable to convert this time, leaving it five points apiece at the interval, and head coach Eddy urged his troops 'to up the tempo in the second half in attack'. They did just that in the 10th minute, Keenan taking the ball up initially and Conroy gaining further ground before passing off the deck for Carr to scramble over near the right corner ahead of two Spanish chasers.
The extras were added with aplomb by Dardis to open up a seven-point margin, and with Spain unable to break out of their half and Conroy continuing to threaten coming in off his wing, the result was sealed by replacement Roche who burst in between two defenders at halfway and sprinted clear for a clinching last-minute try, to the left of the posts.
It was that man Conroy, the Buccaneers flayer, who launched Ireland ahead inside the opening 40 seconds of the much-anticipated final. He stepped in off his left wing, evading three defenders and pierced a midfield hole in the Russian line, dashing over halfway and outpacing Roman Roshchin to score to the right of the posts.
Keenan got up well to take down Dardis' restart, setting up a multi-phase attack with Fitzpatrick and Dardis threatening close to the posts. The Russian defence was sucked in and accurate passes from Carr and McNulty freed up Timoney to cross in the left corner with three minutes on the clock. Dardis missed the difficult conversion at 10-0.
Unfortunately for Ireland, referee Paulo Duarte missed a clear case of obstruction in the build-up to Russia's opening try. Play was allowed to continue and from a quick tap, Vladimir Ostroushko nipped over from close range in the sixth minute. Roshchin converted to reduce the arrears to 10-7 for half-time.
Ireland had the better of the exchanges just before the break, Conroy almost getting free on the right and Carr's blindside snipe on the opposite flank seeing him reach the 22, but it was advantage Russia in the ninth minute when the powerful Denis Simplikevich handed off Conroy to gallop in under the posts. Roshchin's conversion giving the Lodz champions a four-point lead.
With bench players like Josh Rowland and Roche making an impact, Ireland showed impressive composure as they worked themselves some space on the left and Conroy returned the favour on Simplikevich as he skinned him on the outside and rounded a second defender to score behind the posts, midway through the half.
Dardis chipped over the conversion and although McNulty plucked the restart out of the air and Rowland carried strongly soon after, it was Ireland's excellent organisation in defence - they conceded an average of just under six points per game in Clermont - which saw them wear down the Russian challenge and secure their second piece of Rugby Europe silverware this summer.