EXCLUSIVE: Joe Byrnes - Former Voice of London Irish Behind All New Uni Sevens Tournament With Team GB Scouts - Ruck

EXCLUSIVE: Joe Byrnes – Former Voice of London Irish Behind All New Uni Sevens Tournament With Team GB Scouts

The UK rugby sevens circuit is set to get a fresh injection of exciting young talent, with the first ever Rosslyn Park University Sevens tournament kicking off on Friday, June 7th. Eight BUCS Super Rugby sides have put forward a sevens team to take part, in this first of its kind festival to crown the country’s best university rugby sevens team.

The tournament will be watched on by Great Britain Rugby Sevens selectors, with the added initiative of getting scouted to play in the upcoming Rugby Europe competition. Joe Byrnes, who Exiles fans would recognise as the former London Irish stadium announcer, has taken up the role of tournament director for Rosslyn Park University Sevens.

London Irish compere Joe Byrnes during the Gallagher Premiership match between London Irish and Harlequins at The Gtech Community Stadium, London on 29 January 2023 (Photo: Danny Loo/PPAUK)

A lifelong sevens fan, Byrnes is a former player and has long been commentating on the elite competition’s HSBC SVNS world series. Byrnes spoke exclusively to RUCK about the upcoming tournament, which will bring together the best BUCS (British University Colleges Sport) teams for an action packed day this Friday.

“I’ve commentated on the school sevens for the last number of years, and you only have to look at the engagements digitally, there was, I think, in excess of 70 million impressions this year, during the tournament, and the amount of footfall, the quality of rugby and I think just the really overt passion of young men and women playing for their school, for that crest for their mates.

“So there is a BUCS sevens, however, it’s quite low-key. What we wanted to do was to give everyone an opportunity to see all the BUCS Super Rugby sides, in one location on one day and night, really top level competition finished under the floodlights.

during the BUCS Super Rugby varsity match between University of Exeter and Durham University at Sandy Park on February 20th, Exeter, Devon. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“In terms of Rosslyn Park school’s pitches, it seemed like the natural next progression to be doing a university competition. So it’s been a joint effort. And we’ve got eight of the 10 BUCS Super Rugby sides. So it’s a nice tight competition, we did want to have a women’s competition, but the under 20 Six Nation camps are falling this weekend. So it cannibalized all the talent so we couldn’t really get the quality.

“BUCS Super Rugby, it’s almost like a cult or a niche pursuit. I think to really be aware of it, you need to follow a Premiership Club, where you found someone from it. So from our perspective, like Tom Pearson would be would have been the one from London Irish. If you’re a Quins fan you know all about (Alex) Dombrandt and (Luke) Northmore. What I wanted to do was to provide the opportunity to see all of them in one place, and it also give sevens a platform as well with Great Britain in mind, because we’re doing something interesting with them on this.”

Tom Pearson of England on the break during the Summer Nations Series Rugby match between Wales and England at Principality Stadium on August 5, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

The tournament will certainly provide an opportunity to impress, as it has been confirmed that a maximum of the seven best performing players will be called-up by the Great Britain Sevens squad. Team GB men have one last chance to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, as they head to Monaco for the World Rugby Sevens Repechage tournament across June 21st to 23rd.

Only one space remains for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, with Great Britain set to take on eleven other nations for the final spot at the upcoming Paris competition. Also in June, Team GB will take part in the 2024 Rugby Europe 7s tournament, and could well award caps to the top performers from the Rosslyn Park competition, in tournaments across Croatia and Germany. Speaking on this golden opportunity to impress, Byrnes added:

“I approached GB, I’m passionate about uni rugby and I’m passionate about sevens. I think that GB has gone through a challenging time as well, as it’s slightly slipped through the cracks of the three unions. What I’d love to do is to formalise the relationship between the universities and the players and give them a clearer picture of how they can play international sevens.

“From GB’s perspective. I think it’s a pool of talent that they want to be tapping into. So I approached them initially, about if we named a forward and a back of the tournament, could they come in and train with GB. And the way that the fixture list has fallen this summer in Rugby Europe, has meant that they actually have came back and said, ‘Look, you know what, we really believe in this. And we’d actually like to select some players from the tournament, and we’ll cap some for GB, in Rugby Europe’.

“It’s a full cap if you’re pulling on the GB jersey and getting out there and playing against other nations, it’s a full cap. So what an enormous carrot to be dangling to students. I never had that vision or that pathway when I was at uni.

“I think that if we can establish something that’s mutually beneficial, this tournament, then sit in the calendar on an annual basis. In four years time can we see someone from this year’s tournament playing in the Olympics when GB hopefully get to LA (2028 Olympic Games)?”

London Irish compere Joe Byrnes during the Gallagher Premiership match between London Irish and Harlequins at The Gtech Community Stadium, London on 29 January 2023 (Photo: Danny Loo/PPAUK)

A leading voice in the coverage of BUCS Super Rugby, Byrnes has seen an assortment of today’s top Premiership talents make their breakthroughs at University level. Byrnes included the likes of Harlequins and England back-row Alex Dombrandt, and Exeter Chiefs flyer Josh Hodge, as he pieced together a match day 23 and a sevens dream team from the player’s he’s covered in the past.

“Oh, man, well from university that’s a really good question. Oh, I think I’ll have Alex Dombrandt in there. Got to have him in the forwards. Will Muir was at Northumbria in my first year, exceptional. Harry Randall he’d be in there.

“Who else, there is a guy who has just been signed by Exeter Chiefs, he was at Durham University, called Paul Brown who people people won’t have heard of yet. Also, Josh Barton of Exeter, pulling the strings. I probably need to put in another forward… but oh, Josh Hodge as well, Hodge another flyer! But, what about Guy Pepper?

England A player Guy Pepper (Newcastle Falcons) tries to gather the ball during the International rugby match between England A and Portugal at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on February 25th- PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“Will Muir is one of my earliest commentaries. He was in a team with George Wacokecoke, and a few other players up north. Dommers, all these guys, I have been really, really lucky to know them from day one on their unique careers, and there’s still a very special bond as well.

“You know, I see a lot of these players around Premiership grounds European Cup. I commentated on England A (against Portugal), and Josh Hodge was there, Will Muir, all those guys. So we always catch up. And it’s a really special community during and in the aftermath of university rugby.

Try celebration for England A player Will Muir (Bath Rugby) during the International rugby match between England A and Portugal at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on February 25th- PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“I mean, like, if you look at the fifteens one (BUCS dream team) and the players that are not in there, players like Ross Vintcent doesn’t make the 23. Max Ojomah doesn’t make the 23 so it’s a real embarrassment of riches.”


MATCH DAY 23: (BUCS University Team / Professional Club / International Honours)

15. Freddie Steward (Loughborough / Leicester Tigers / England)
14. Manny Feyi-Waboso (Exeter / Exeter Chiefs / England)
13. Luke Northmore (Cardiff Met / Harlequins / England Camp)
12. Dan Kelly (Loughborough / Leicester Tigers / England)
11. Will Muir (Northumbria / Bath / England 7s & Camp)
10. Will Edwards (Loughborough / Harlequins / England 7s)
9. Harry Randall (Hartpury / Bristol Bears / England)

1. Arthur Cordwell (Bath / Bath)
2. Tom Doughty (Bath / Bath and Bristol Bears)
3. Archie Griffin (Bath / Bath / Wales)
4. Sam Skinner (Exeter / Edinburgh / Scotland)
5. Daffyd Jenkins (Exeter / Exeter Chiefs / Wales)
6. Sebastian Negri (Hartpury / Benetton Treviso / Italy)
7. Tom Pearson (Cardiff Met / Northampton Saints / England)
8. Alex Dombrandt (Cardiff Met / Harlequins / England)

16. Fred Davies (Durham / Bristol Bears)
17. Joe Cowell (Cardiff Met / Cardiff)
18. Will Hurd (Cardiff Met / Leicester Tigers)
19. Christ Tshiunza (Exeter / Exeter Chiefs / Wales)
20. Aaron Wainwright (Cardiff Met / Dragons / Wales)
21. Stephen Varney (Hartpury / Gloucester / Italy)
22. Max Lewellyn (Cardiff Met / Gloucester / Wales)
23. Josh Hodge (Northumbria / Exeter Chiefs / England A)

Notable Omissions: Ross Vincent, Miles Reid, Fitz Harding, Jack Kenningham, Tom Lawday,
Max Ojomoh, Ben Stevenson, Thibault Flament, Dan John, Zach Wimbush, George
Wacokecoke, Sam Maunder, Huw Sutton, Ellis Bevan, Max Nagy


(University Team / International Honours / Olympic Medal)

7. Ruaridh McConnochie (Gloucestershire / England / GB Silver at Rio 2016)
6. Tom Mitchell (Bristol / England / GB Silver at Rio 2016)
5. Dan Bibby (Cardiff Met / England / GB Silver at Rio 2016)
4. Dan Norton (Hartpury / England / GB Silver at Rio 2016)
3. Will Muir (Northumbria / England)
2. Harry Glover (Newcastle / England and GB)
1. Rich de Carpentier (Cardiff Met / England and GB)

Ruaridh McConnochie of Bath Rugby during the Premiership Rugby Cup match between Gloucester Rugby and Bath Rugby at Kingsholm Stadium on 12 November 2021 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

The confirmed teams for the Rosslyn Park University Sevens tournament are an assorted list of elite rugby institutions. The eight sides heading to the inaugural tournament are; Exeter, Durham, Loughborough, Bath, Hartpury, Swansea, Nottingham and Cardiff Metropolitan. Byrnes is delighted to have secured the involvement of eight leading universities, and gave us a run-down of the exciting players to look out for from each academic hotspot.


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Daffyd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs & Wales), Christ Tziundza (Exeter Chiefs & Wales), Sam Skinner (Edinburgh & Scotland), Tom Lawday (Harlequins), Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter Chiefs & England)

WHO TO WATCH: Benjy Joseland

JOE BYRNES: “Tall and rangy, very quick. I think, probably due to his height, he’ll probably end up in the forwards as a sevens player. Be very good for kickoffs, he is the record try scorer for Exeter University in their history in BUCS Super Rugby. Really good player, very exciting.”


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Fitz Harding (Bristol Bears), Ben Stevenson (Newcastle Falcons)

WHO TO WATCH: Max Pepper (Brother of Newcastle Falcons and England A Guy Pepper)

JOE BYRNES: “He’s different (to brother Guy Pepper), Max is a winger / scrum-half. He is just really sparky around the fringes, super quick. He has an eye for a gap, very, very threatening in broken field as well. Absolutely deadly.”


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Dan Kelly (Leicester Tigers and England) Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers and England)

WHO TO WATCH: Sam Kildunne (Brother of England and Great Britain 7s Ellie Kildunne)

JOE BYRNES: “I think he pulled his hamstring in the BUCS Super Rugby final after receiving a cross-field kick and then chipping ahead. He’s been a bit blighted by injuries over the last couple of years. He has been involved previously with England, but he is a fantastic player and certainly someone whose skill set is let to the game of sevens, particularly.”


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Jack Kenningham (Harlequins) Miles Reid, Max Ojomoh, Archie
Griffin (all Bath Rugby)

WHO TO WATCH: Sam Mercer

JOE BYRNES: “I don’t know if he’s related to Zach, I don’t think he is. Because there’s a lot of Mercer’s in Bath, generally quite a few Mercer families. But yeah, big specimen with a lot of pace.”


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Seb Negri (Benetton & Italy), Harry Randall (Bristol & England), Dan Norton (England & Great Britain)

WHO TO WATCH: Iwan Pyrs-Jones

JOE BYRNES: “You can actually Google him, from when he stepped about three French players in a five by five box, at the Singapore sevens like two or three years ago. Ridiculous feet. So massively exciting player.”


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Max Nagy and Huw Sutton (both Ospreys)

WHO TO WATCH: Will Plessis

Image Credit: WRU

JOE BYRNES: “Will Plessis for Swansea is an interesting one. He was in the Stowe school team that won the vase two years in a row at Rosslyn Park national schools. He played alongside Henry Pollock and Archie McParland (both Northampton Saints). Pretty ridiculous team to have all three of them in, but yeah, a real real banger of a back row who flies around the pitch.”


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Archie Van Der Flier (Leicester Tigers) and Robert Carmichael (Edinburgh and England U20s)

WHO TO WATCH: Connor Moyse

JOE BYRNES: “Corner Moyse, most deadly wing for Nottingham in BUCS Super Rugby. 50 appearances as well, which is a feat for any player it really, really is. English students (capped) as well. Quite tall, and a good finisher.”


RECENT RUGBY ALUMNI: Aaron Wainwright (Dragons & Wales), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins & England), Tom Pearson (Northampton and England), Luke Northmore (Harlequins & England Camp) Max Llewellyn (Gloucester), Ellis Bevan (Cardiff)

WHO TO WATCH: Roma Xeng and Rory Morgan

JOE BYRNES: “Then who have we got for Cardiff, Matt. Roma’s Xeng, not sure if he will be playing, but remember the name. You’re going to see him in Quin’s colours no doubt. And Rory Morgan, he’s excellent than Irish actually, so he’s got to be good!”

Next Friday’s first-ever tournament is set to break new barriers in the rugby sevens landscape, and Byrnes also has some exciting ideas for the future. The commentator discussed how the Rosslyn Park University Sevens tournament has established a partnership with Premiership Rugby, and enables all tournament attendees the opportunity for discounted tickets to the 2023/24 Premiership Final.

Taking place the following day (June 8th) at Twickenham Stadium, and will see Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby compete for the title. Byrnes expressed his excitement at the collaboration, and how it is the perfect opportunity for rugby fans to make next Friday the beginning of a long weekend of rugby festivities.

“If you love your rugby, knock off work on Friday afternoon, come down to the best university talent in the country, sink a few beers at the Rock, and then go to Twickenham the next day and see the premiership final, and you get 15% of your final ticket.

“It’s really good of them to offer that to us and to partner. When I approached them it didn’t take any arm twisting, they were really keen to get on board and support. In terms of the universities and the demographics, I think they really identify it as a meaningful piece of the rugby jigsaw puzzle in England.”

Byrnes sounded off his preview for the upcoming tournament, by discussing the exciting potential for a ‘Barbarians-esque’ fixture between the top university talents. The idea is still in it’s infancy, but Byrnes would love to see an annual match between a BUCS Super Rugby All Stars team, chosen from the 10 competing universities, take on a ‘best of the rest’ University Barbarians with representatives from the best non-BUCS teams from across the UK.

“We’d love it to continue as an annual tournament to grow it on a sustainable level. Wouldn’t like to compromise the quality at the top of it, that’s for sure. I think the 10 BUCS Super Rugby sides, and there may be an alumni all stars, which would be cool.

“And then a sort of ‘best of the rest’ barbarians, because there’s a lot of really talented players, who don’t play BUCS Super Rugby. So they play in the leagues below, so we can maybe get a Barbarian side of those really talented sevens players, throw them together so that they’re not denied an opportunity Because they’re not in a BUCS Super Rugby side. I think that’d be that’d be pretty cool.

“As I said, we want to get the women’s competition going as well. But that’s going to take some some managing of the calendar, the women’s calendar is so chock-a these days, it’s finding the right time, so that all the best players are available.”