The Ireland Women's side closed out last year's Six Nations championship by securing back-to-back wins for the first time in the tournament's history. Team captain Sarahjane Belton is hoping for more of the same in 2008, beginning with today's clash with Italy.
The Women's team get their campaign underway this afternoon at St. Mary's College RFC's Templeville Road grounds (kick-off 2.30pm), with Italy providing the opposition.
Ireland beat the Azzurri girls 17-12 in Rome last March with Jo O'Sullivan, Jeannette Feighery and Mairead Kelly each chipping in with a try.
After today's game, John O'Sullivan's side will face France at St Gratien on February 10, welcome Scotland and Wales to Templeville Road on February 22 and March 7 respectively, before ending the tournament with a March 15 encounter with defending champions England at the London Irish amateur club.
After last season's fourth place finish, full-back Belton explained that with confidence high, this Irish squad is targeting more wins than ever.
"Really our must-win games this year are against Italy, Wales, Scotland and France. We need to take France this year. We came close last season but lost by a try in injury-time," said Belton, who was named at number 10 in the World Cup All-Star team in 2006.
"It's time to do it now, we've talked about it long enough. We have the team, the backroom staff, everything has gone very well preparation-wise so I think we're ready to do that."
The Irish side for the Italian game boasts plenty of experience, with centre Patrique Kelly making a welcome return and Tania Rosser resuming at scrum half after giving birth to her son Serge in September.
Indeed, Ireland's selected pack is exactly the same as the one which took to the Stadio Tre Fontane pitch almost twelve months ago for the corresponding fixture against Italy.
Belton recognises what a difference those players came make. "We're building on last year's progress. We had a new coach in last year (in John O'Sullivan) so the first season is always the most difficult for a new coach.
"But we definitely made progress last season and we just need to start where we finished last year and go forward and I feel we have the players to do that," she admitted.
"We've a great bunch of players and backroom staff. The lot together, we're gelling very well. The training camps have gone very well, training weekends in November and December.
"We've got a good team spirit there, we've always had but that's half the battle sometimes."
The current optimism in the Ireland set-up for this season and beyond when you consider that today's replacements bench has five uncapped players on it - Gillian Bourke, Kate O'Loughlin, Louise Austin, Niamh Briggs and Amy Davis.
Belton agreed: "We've so many new players coming in. We lost a few from last season due to injury or retirement. The new ones, they're coming in more confident every year because they've had more years of training or practice than we would have had. They're starting at a younger age.
"So I think things are only going to progress and get better as the years go on."
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