Ireland's Billy Dardis - ‘Everything came back and hit me at that moment’

The Ireland rugby sevens captain reflects on the long journey that has brought him and his team-mates to Tokyo
Cathal Dennehy

It was in his first quiet moment that it finally hit him, the sight of the ultimate destination looming into view and forcing him to reflect on his journey. Minutes after Billy Dardis led the Irish rugby sevens side to Olympic qualification last month, he gave one of the most memorable, emotional interviews of the sporting year, then retreated into open-spaced isolation on the pitch in Monaco.

“Everything came back and hit me at that one moment,” he says. “I was thinking back on school and hard training sessions, the big days building up to that.”

On his website, beneath the tagline “lead, inspire, perform,” the 26-year-old has a quote from Aristotle: “You are what you repeatedly do, therefore excellence becomes not an act, but a habit.”

His life has been steeped in this sport since the age of 11, when the Naas native secured a rugby bursary from Newbridge College. Dardis played two Junior Cups there before transferring to Terenure College, with whom he played two Senior Cups.

“Myself and Greg O’Shea often joke that we peaked in school and it only went downhill,” he laughs. “That was where I learned to be the kind of player I am, not being a selfish player and making right decisions. A big thing at Terenure is being a gentleman off the pitch and that was driven into me from a young age.”

After graduating, Dardis joined the Leinster academy and was capped for Ireland at U-20 level. He juggled his promising career with a degree in health and performance science at UCD, during which he earned a senior contract with Leinster.

His journey into the sevens world began in 2016 and Dardis has captained the Irish side since 2017, leading them to the 2018 World Cup in San Francisco. He has long been aware of the disregard sometimes shown for the sevens code within rugby circles and that tournament brought it home to him.

“We’d been around three or four years (at that point) and guys were being sent screenshots of tweets, ‘Who are this bunch of students being sent on holiday in San Francisco?’ There was disrespect.”

But Dardis always believed in the future of the project, and in sevens he bonded with his team-mates in a way that wasn’t always possible in the bigger, ever-changing squads of 15s rugby.

“Guys who come out (of 15s) love how relaxed (sevens) is but also how hard we work,” he says. “It’s just a good bunch of hard-working blokes. We’ve a Love Island superstar, social media influencer, we have guys who are lawyers, qualified solicitors, guys who are doing masters.

“We have a unique group of lads and it is good craic. We get to travel the world together, just the 12 of us.”

The mechanics of sevens are also very different, with teams playing two seven-minute halves and often contesting six games in a single weekend. To Dardis, that’s more enjoyable than the once-a-week nature of 15s.

“Everyone plays their best rugby when no one is watching on the schoolyard. Because you’re playing so much, you become accustomed to enjoy playing it.

“It teaches you to relax, live in each moment, do what you do really well.”

Dardis’s first memories of the Olympics came in 2000. He was just five years old when he watched Sonia O’Sullivan win 5,000m silver in Sydney and that sparked something in him.

“As soon as that happened, I remember running around my green,” he says. In his childhood he tried distance-running and GAA, before the early roots of his Olympic dream were planted when he focused on rugby. “The Olympics was this huge event, but I never understood what went into it.”

Over time, as he and his team-mates traversed the world, playing the best and learning how to beat them, he gradually realised. The sevens game started making its mark in Ireland, no longer dismissed as a place for those who couldn’t cut it in 15s.

“When I started I didn’t want to go and play, I thought it meant I was going to be let go from my province,” he says. “But over the last couple of years, more bounced in and out of it and (with) the performance we’ve put on, players have started to realise this is pretty cool.”

Their years of work all led to that final qualifying event in Monaco, where the Irish had to beat France to book their place at the Games. That they did, coming from behind to win the final 28-19.

That led to a dizzying few weeks, as congratulations and best-of-lucks rained down from all sides.

“They understand how much hard work has gone into it, how much we sacrificed and how much we put our life on hold to work towards this.”

Dardis led the Irish out for their opening game against South Africa in the early hours of this morning, and their second pool game against USA is at 10.30am Irish time today. Their final group game, against Kenya, is at 3am Irish time tomorrow.

The top two in each four-team group will advance to tomorrow’s quarter-finals along with the two highest-ranked third-place finishers, with the semi-finals and finals played on Wednesday.

“We’re going with the aim of getting a gold medal,” says Dardis. “It comes down to every little moment. We’ve nothing to lose and if we can put on a show, we can beat the best teams in the world.”

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