Experienced Ireland number 8 Joy Neville hopes her side’s Six Nations success will provide a catalyst for the game to grow across the country, writes Scrumqueens.com editor Ali Donnelly.
Joy Neville has been part of the Ireland Women’s set-up over the past decade, having made her debut in 2003 against Scotland in the Six Nations as a fresh-faced 19-year-old.
Since then, the now director of rugby at Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) has become a crucial component of Ireland’s continued growth on the international stage.
And while she admits her time in the green shirt is limited as she heads towards the end of her career, Neville hopes that the girls in green’s current spell in the spotlight will encourage a swathe of new players to take the game up.
“We need to make the most of the exposure we are getting now to recruit more girls to the sport and I am sure the IRFU are digesting the massive interest there has been in us this year to help us to do that,” she said.
“We put a huge amount of work in to get where we are and now we have a (Six Nations) title, but to maintain it we need to continue to have more visibility outside of the Six Nations window and take the next steps to getting more girls involved as a result.”
Neville can recall clearly her first cap ten years ago, handed to her after impressing as a youngster for Limerick club Shannon and then with Munster.
“My first cap doesn’t feel that long ago. It wasn’t actually the best day because, despite the excitement of it being my first cap, the game was moved hours away because of bad weather and I wasn’t able to get hold of my Dad to tell him so he turned up at the wrong ground and missed the game!
“I do remember being struck by the pace of the match. I was constantly going down with calf cramp, and that pace has only accelerated over the years at the top level.”
While Neville says she was lucky to break through to the Ireland side after such a short time playing, her ability to compete at the highest level was evident to those who saw her obvious talent in her early days.
“I was quite young but there were a few retirements in the side around the time and Donal O’Leary gave me a chance,” she explains.
Neville says that while she always felt Ireland were capable of challenging for the Six Nations crown, she is still having to pinch herself at the trajectory the squad has taken over the past decade.
“In the early days, it was a big deal for us to even score a try, not to mind win a game. If we did score, it was almost always a forward as we weren’t quite there yet in being strong enough to provide our backs with good clean ball.”
Having watched last Friday’s 15-10 win over France a few times over already, she adds that Ireland still have some improving to do.
“Hardly any of us could sleep after the game and at around 4am I got up to watch the game again with Fiona Coghlan.
“Looking at it I was actually disappointed a bit with some of the errors we made, but it’s good to know that we actually have a lot to improve on. I think there’s a lot to come from us yet.”
Philip Doyle’s talented squad are now on the receiving end of more media attention and support than ever before, and rather than see it as a distraction ahead of their final game against Italy this weekend, Neville, who is one of three stalwards in the side for ten years alongside Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell, is welcoming the exposure.
“For so many years I was frustrated with the lack of recognition for the game here, so we now need to make the most of the coverage and interest to generate more exposure and get more girls playing.
“The media coverage has been good but we have all been blown away with the support and the crowds we’re getting now too (in Ashbourne). People want to watch us play and are impressed with what we are trying to do.
“It’s a turning point for us and we have to make the most of it in building up to the World Cup. We don’t want this to be a one-off. We have a group of players and management with a great camaraderie who work incredibly hard for each other.”
Neville puts Ireland’s growth and development down to a number of factors, admitting: “We have a talented group of players and a settled management, but I think one of the key things for us is the change in how we are playing our rugby.
“Last year we looked at general movement – a change in the style of game we play – and we had a year of playing more open rugby and getting used to that.
“When we came back this year, I remember thinking, ‘wow’, after the first session. Everyone was playing really smart intelligent rugby at a really high skill level and that’s come through in our Six Nations games.
“We’ve now got a tough game against Italy this weekend which we are not taking for granted. They are always really tough to play against, especially over there, and they have a superb out-half who I rate as one of the best in the Championship.”
In her day job, Neville heads up rugby at LIT, and given her decision not to be part of the Ireland Sevens set-up, what does the future hold?
“I love my job and have been thrilled with the respect I’ve gotten from the sides I’m coaching. It’s been a challenge but one that’s been enjoyable and I want to make progress with that.
“Playing Sevens was too much of a commitment for me when I’ve been giving up my weekends for a very long time and I haven’t decided yet how long more I will keep playing for Ireland.
“I’ve done two World Cups and there’s another one next year, but I will wait till the Six Nations is over before making any real decision. There is one tough game ahead this weekend and that’s my focus for now.”
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