ANTHONY EDDY’S IRELAND Sevens squad were given a good look at the benchmark they must hit if they are to secure early Olympic qualification next month.

Ireland advanced to the final of the Moscow 7s yesterday with knockout round wins over Spain and Germany, but lost a thrilling final to France 31-26.

Along with being the first round of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix, the tournament acted as the seeding round for the looming Olympic qualifier, and Ireland’s second-place finish means they will avoid France and third-place England in the pool stages in Colombiers.

The final was the second time over the weekend Ireland lost out to Les Bleus, after Saturday’s pool defeat, but having held a 19-21 second half lead they must feel capable of closing the gap should they meet again on 14 July.

Ultimately, Ireland were undone by midfield gaps created by a dynamic and high-skilled French outfit. Les Bleus’ Marvin O’Connor made the most of the space he found with precision breaks leading to a try of his own and the opener for Remi Siega.

After the brilliant Jean Barraque touched down France’s second, Siega found himself on the wrong end of a clean break as Ireland worked a deep set-piece to put Jordan Conroy one-on-one with his opposite number and the Tullamore flyer duly skinned him on an outside arc.

O’Connor danced clear again, but it was Conroy who had the final say in the half, breaking down the right long after the hooter thanks to Terry Kennedy’s beautifully-timed pass after Greg O’Shea worked the ball left to right across midfield.

 Despite France’s bright start, Ireland trailed just 19-14 at the interval and Shane Daly’s brilliant back-handed offload allowed captain Billy Dardis turn it into a 19-21 lead.

However, the skipper misjudged his restart, leaving it well short of 10 metres and France gobbled up the invite to attack, keeping breakdowns to a minimum as they popped the ball through pair after pair of hands before Manoel Dalligna got into the corner. And the contest was suddenly beyond Ireland when Barraque whipped a pass wide for Pierre Mignot.

Kennedy grabbed a consolation after the hooter to leave just five between the sides at the finish.

With the best four teams from the Sevens World Series (a tournament Ireland recently qualified to play in from next season) each guaranteed a place at Tokyo 2020, the remaining berths will be filled by six regional qualifiers – South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania – and hosts Japan.

Only the winners of the European qualifying tournament will be awarded an Olympic berth, but there will one further chance to take on Tokyo through a global repechage tournament next year.

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