IN A PRISTINE freshly-decorated office overlooking the new astroturf on the IRFU’s indoor training field within the National Sports Campus, Harry McNulty seems a long, long way removed from the subject at hand.
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Last summer, during an off-season that could have delivered a break from long-haul flights and rugby training, he headed for Fiji.
His 3,000-or-so followers might remember the Instagram updates from the man with shoulder-length brown hair looking right at home immersed in island life, simpler surrounds, and the very earthy spectacle of a Fijian Lovo — when he supplied the meat and his hosts displayed the technique of cooking by burial amid hot stones.
McNulty and and a fellow traveller went to the Pacific nation with nothing but a little time to spare and a contact in former Fiji selector Sailosi Naiteqe, who invited the touring pair to stay with the provincial Naitasari team while they were in a quite communal camp around the 15-a-side Farebrother Cup.
“For the whole month the team was living in the community hall,” McNulty tells The42, with a a mix of admiration, but also relief that he went island-hopping after just a few days embedded with the team.
“30 lads in a hall sleeping on the floor, getting up, having breakfast, praying. Some lads went to work, some lads stayed around and then they trained in the evening for a full month.”
More than anything in Fiji, McNulty was bowled over by the enormous level of interest in Sevens. Ireland may be a latecomer to the game, but thanks to a thriving trade in DVD sales after each round of Fiji’s exploits on the world stage, the former Munster academy man didn’t need to do much explaining about how his team were progressing.
“When I was there, we had just played Fiji in France and London and those games were still on sale in the shops. They make sure they don’t miss anything.
“A taxi driver recognised me in Fiji, but they wouldn’t know who you were here. It’s cool, but it’s a bit of a shock to see how strongly they support it.
“And they like teams who play well against Fiji too. If it’s a good game they’ll take more of an interest in it too. So they know everybody, don’t worry about that.”
In the wake of this year’s London 7s, Naiteqe spoke with the Fiji Sun about McNulty’s time in the Pacific and said the experience had improved some technical elements of his game. The Bahrain-born, Rockwell-schooled athlete isn’t so sure, but he certainly got an education from the unstructured training and casual games.
“I’d train with the guys (in Naitasari) and their training was structured to an extent, but then they play one touch, a game I’d never played before. It’s like touch rugby, but if you get touched it’s a turnover ball.
“And they will just throw the ball anywhere!
“If there’s nobody there, they’ll just throw it back 20 metres and the whole team run back 20 metres. It’s all skills and running lines, throwing offloads and dummies.
McNulty takes the ball on against Australia in London last year. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO
“I found it really difficult to figure out how to make a clean break. I never made a clean break, I never make one anyway,” he says with a laugh, but the awe inspired in him by watching Fijians fly over even foreboding terrain is no joke.
While he saw players make breaks and scorch in from 50 metres all over, it was out in Tavenui that he witnessed the most impressive feat… and feet.
“The pitch had holes which were a foot deep. (It was) 10 metres from the beach and crabs bury themselves in the pitch every night.
“A guy running around in flip-flops took a hard line, chipped the fullback and scored from 40 metres out.
“With flip-flops on! I was just worried about not breaking my ankle by stepping in a hole.”
If you have ever happened upon a group picture of Ireland’s Sevens players posing and smiling up at a high camera angle in some far-flung location, chances are it’s McNulty’s long arm out-stretched to take the group selfie.
He takes the flak and barbs for it from his team-mates, but he won’t be shaken off the need to take a snap and document moments. His motivation is the same reason the rest of us suddenly up our frames-per-day rate when we visit new places. He wants the memory to last as more than mere recollection.
“Because in 20 years’ time I’ll hopefully have a family, and I’ll be able to look back and see who was there and look at all the memories,” McNulty says at the start of what he intends to make a very memorable month indeed.
“‘Remember we were in Hong Kong, remember when we were in Cape Town…’”
Just as well the 6′ 2″ Sevens forward feels that way, because The42 had no shortage of ‘remember-when’ questions to put to him in order to chart his path to this point.
At 26, he has already clocked up a lifetime’s worth of air-miles and places to call home.
As a key component of Ireland’s Sevens side, his current job takes him across the globe for short sharp bursts of exertion. He was born in Bahrain while his parents were working in the Gulf and then spent 10 formative years in New York which have left a trace through his accent.
A life of movement and changing scenery can make it difficult to lay down roots or for a rolling stone to gather moss. However, McNulty has continuously found sport as a touchstone wherever he has been.
Living just north of New York City, close to the Connecticut border, he channelled his sporting prowess through an ice hockey stick – perhaps the lineage of two Tipperary grandfathers helped him along the way.
His ‘peewee’ team the Rye Rangers were deliberately styled on the professional side in New York and the sport brought him serious early tastes of the big time arena, literally, as he got the chance to skate out with the Rye Rangers to play between second and third periods on the hallowed ice of Madison Square Garden.
His father Aiden was a keen rugby player and so the sport was never alien to McNulty even while opportunities to play were thin on the ground. A return to Bahrain and then ultimately to school in Rockwell College at 14 changed all that and McNulty got serious about bringing his ice hockey physicality onto a green field.
Looking at McNulty, you can’t help but feel an urge to echo Christopher Walken’s character in ‘Catch Me If You Can’, Frank Abagnale Snr, when he’s taking vicarious joy from his debonair rogue of a son.
Where ya going, Frank?
McNulty’s last grand adventure ended with him being invited onto the winners’ podium to lift the Farebrother Cup in Fiji and learning to keep his Kava measuremen to ‘medium tide’ rather than ‘Tsunami full-full’.
His next one comes as a reward for the travel experience he has clocked up and the effort, and abuse, he took to grab snapshots of it along the way. In April, he was picked from 37,000 applicants to take up a well-paid three-week gig as a ‘shore explorer’ for cruiseliner Royal Caribbean. He is a big believer in putting himself ‘out there’, but a competition that didn’t require him to canvas for a public vote and instead rely on his own application video was right up his street.
McNulty in Munster training in 2013. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
After winning a Munster Senior Cup medal in 2011, McNulty went to study in Dublin and played with Trinity before returning for a stint in the southern province’s academy. It didn’t work out in Munster, but Ireland’s Sevens project was just around the corner and, after returning from a period studying in Australia, McNulty was in place to become an original core member of a team starting from Europe’s Division C in 2015.
From that lowly beginning, Ireland secured a place on the World Series this year and so they will have more and more chances to show their wares on the big stage.
However, in recent weeks the World Series has been shoved well towards the back-burner as the Olympic qualifier draws near.
Anthony Eddy’s men will head to Colombiers in France on Tuesday as second seeds with the knowledge that they will likely have to beat the top-seeded hosts – on Bastille Day – in order to take the sole qualification berth on offer.
It could sound daunting to some groups, teams who have struggled to shine on grand occasions or squads without such an array of dangerous young talent. McNulty is the experienced head in among this sensational fast-rising team. He has experienced the long road and can see a clear difference to their last Olympic bid.
“It’s huge. Very, very exciting. I think about it and I start sweating, the adrenaline’s going, heart’s beating and I need to take a time-out for a minute. Because the thought of it is pretty incredible,” says Ireland’s Sevens stalwart, suddenly shaken out of his relaxed demeanour in between training sessions.
“To finally get on (the World Series) was so huge and it just took up everything in your mindset – that’s all you thought about. It’s only the last two, three weeks that the actual realisation hits you: ‘hold on a minute, the opportunity here to go to the Olympics is a complete reality’.
“Four years ago when we tried to go in Monaco it was different, we’d only been training for two years, we hadn’t been playing in the Grand Prix, playing good teams all the time.
“To be at the level we’re at now, with the players we have now and the performances we put in, there’s a serious, serious shot at winning.
“We’re going there to win.”