10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
And then you play in New Zealand for a season. And there you see props running like bullet trains, passing long with accuracy off their left and right; strong Maori and Pacific Islander girls flying at you with the agility and side-stepping ability of gazelles; teams of social touch footy girls playing with the free-styling, seat-of-their-pants flair that is the hallmark of the country's rugby style, from under fives to All Blacks.
"It blows your mind," said veteran Irish centre and winger Lynne Cantwell.
The 28-year-old has made the cut for the recently-announced Irish Women's Rugby World Cup squad, despite spending the past season out of the country.
The Limerick-based physio headed south in May of 2009 to spend a year matching herself against the best in the Southern Hemisphere. It was a big decision to go, she says, particularly as she would be missing for the pre-World Cup season. Maybe risky too.
"The timing wasn't ideal, but I just thought it would be one of the last opportunities to still be competing at this level and to go over and play in New Zealand. We all consider it to be the be-all and end-all of rugby," she explained.
"I'm very much the type of person that isn't as motivated by, say, caps, or staying in one place for a long period of time. But I had stuff I wanted to work on and knew I had to do something."
After a spell travelling through South East Asia with her boyfriend, Lynne hit the College Rifles team in Auckland, where she had made contact with some players through fellow Irish player Jo O'Sullivan.
She started 'training like a horse', knowing that the competition at home for her squad spot was working just as hard.
"The rugby training was different, and I still can't really verbalise how," she recalls. "For the first half of the year I played a lot of touch. It's huge in New Zealand and very social. I played loads of that, which I didn't expect going over."
When training for the season proper started, she says what impressed her was the Kiwi players' better understanding of the game as a whole, than she was used to in the Northern Hemisphere.
Their speed and agility, coupled with their impressive physicality, was a reminder of what the Black Ferns can bring to the World Cup at the end of August.
"Over there they talk about free-styling, taking on players one-on-one, it's unreal. They were kicking a lot more than I expected, and that was cool. I had to work hard on my kicking to try and fit in.
"They are seriously big, strong girls that can run at you. Their lines of running are different. They stand a lot shallower, we stand with more depth. That's probably because of their natural acceleration, so they can stand shallower.
"They use kicking a lot, so that was something to get used to. And that ability to freestyle, to go one-on-one, that's huge. Using it to beat your opposite number, you don't need a 'backline move.'"
New Zealanders grow up playing everything from rugby league - the most popular girls' rugby game there - to touch to netball. These skillsets transfer with those who want to play union.
"Girls across the board from prop to winger, they all had a nice skillset they could use. At home, because we are starting (to play rugby) at a later age, if we're wingers, we learn to catch and so on. They have props that can pass 15 metres off their right and left, and can kick."
Black Ferns Sessions
Ever hungry for rugby experience, Lynne even talked her way into a Black Ferns trial session, via a coach whose great-grandfather was from Cork.
"They were so welcoming, so family-oriented. They all love Ireland, they all have some ancestors from here. The training was savage, it was at a nice high standard, with fast drills.
"I played against a few of the Black Ferns in club matches, they are something special, to be fair." Four of her College Rifles team-mates, Vita Robinson, Emma Jensen, Doris Taufateau and Monalisa Codling, have made the recently-announced New Zealand Women's World Cup squad.
Coming back to Ireland in May, Cantwell knew she would be fighting for her place in the Irish squad.
"I was so nervous about what I knew I had to try and achieve. I knew leaving was a risk in the first place, and that wouldn't pay off unless I got on the squad."
She says she was extremely happy to make the final cut. "I took nothing for granted at all. The first training session back I did okay, the second training I had to make a big impression and I did. The competition is tough, especially for the position I want to play.
"There are a lot of disappointed girls, but there are a lot of seriously happy girls as well. And those girls, they've been told they need to keep training too, because god forbid, anything could happen. We were all chatting about who would make the cut, and honestly we could not pick it.
"You should see the difference in the girls from what I saw last year. They are pushing themselves to be better players, and ultimately that means we will play better as a team," she added.
The squad had two full weekends together in June before the final World Cup squad was announced. Until the middle of August, it is weekend training camps, midweek sessions and as much personal training as they can fit in.
"I'm back working, doing holiday cover for physios, but only five or six hours a day so I can train. My friends hate me, by the way! I'm deleted from their phone books!
"I really can't wait to put into action what we've done and learned. I was at the last two World Cups, and it was very much we were in there to do our best.
"But now we have expectations. I'm looking forward to it. England will put on a great show, there will be so much support at all the games. It will be a great push for women's rugby."
And after the World Cup. Any thoughts of hanging up her boots? Cantwell is emphatic that that's not on the table just yet.
"I went over to New Zealand, thinking this is my last chance to be the best I can be, thinking I'm 28, should I think about retiring?
"And some girls are still playing seriously competitively into their 30s and into their 40s. So, no way. I'm going to keep on playing until I'm not good enough any more. I'm not putting an age on it!"
This article was published on www.ScrumQueens.com and is reproduced by permission.
Ireland Women's Rugby World Cup Fixtures:
England v Ireland, Surrey, Friday, August 20, 6.30pm
USA v Ireland, Surrey, Tuesday, August 24, 4.30pm
Ireland v Kazakhstan, Surrey, Saturday, August 28, 4.30pm
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