As she prepares for her second Women’s Rugby World Cup tournament, Ulster ace Ashleigh Baxter is acutely aware that expectations are high for the Ireland squad after such a memorable 2014 run in France.
Ashleigh Baxter was a regular on the right wing for Ireland at the last World Cup when they made history by finishing fourth overall. She played the full 80 minutes in that unforgettable pool victory over then-champions New Zealand in Marcoussis.
With this year’s WRWC taking place in Dublin and Belfast, the pressure will be on Tom Tierney’s current crop to perform, but the 25-year-old, who has been capped 18 times as a 15s international, believes they are capable of once again challenging for the trophy.
“There’s certainly a bit more pressure. We did really well to reach the semi-finals last time, and we were unfortunate not to get the win against France in the last game (a 3rd-4th place play-off). I suppose the expectation, I think that’s good for the team,” remarked the Castlewellan native. “We know we’re better than the bottom section, we know we’re better than the bottom teams. There’s no reason we can’t go top-four again.”
Baxter’s rugby roots trace back to Down High School where she began playing Tag as a second year pupil. She joined Belfast Harlequins at 18 and her athleticism, speed and high work-rate saw her climb quickly through the ranks, impressing at club level and with the Ulster Women before earning her first Ireland cap against France during the 2012 Six Nations.
A year later, the Queen’s aerospace engineering graduate played in four of Ireland’s five games as they broke new ground with a stunning Grand Slam success under coach Philip Doyle and captain Fiona Coghlan. ‘Bax’ was the youngest member of Ireland’s 2014 World Cup squad at 22, playing in all five matches (four starts) and having a little extra responsibility in looking after team mascot ‘Seamus’.
Having also played for Ireland in the 2013 Sevens World Cup in Moscow, Ashleigh has emerged as a key player in the Sevens set-up in recent seasons, playing as a forward as the girls in green earned their highest ever finishes this year in both the World Series (ninth) and Rugby Europe Grand Prix Series (second).
She is based full-time in Dublin as part of the IRFU Women’s Sevens programme. A tremendously resilient and bubbly character, she has battled back from ankle ligament trouble and a recent calf strain to get fit for another World Cup. Her teenage brother Cameron, who tragically died in a fall last November, and her grandfather Harry, who passed away just last week, will be looking down on her with immense pride as she represents her country in the global showpiece.
Ashleigh told the Belfast Telegraph: “Cameron played rugby at school too, and we’d do body-boarding and kayaking together. I miss him terribly. He and Granddad were both very proud of me. It’s a pity they’re not here to see the World Cup.”
The home World Cup has created huge demands for tickets at the four match venues – the UCD Bowl, Billings Park, Queen’s University and Kingspan Stadium. With additional seating and terracing, the Bowl will have a 3,500 capacity for Ireland’s three Pool C encounters with Australia (Wednesday, August 9), Japan (Sunday, August 13) and France (Thursday, August 17).
Baxter is thrilled that there is such a big interest in the tournament, and hopes the knockout rounds in the familiar surroundings of Queen’s and the home of Ulster Rugby will also produce passionate and vocal crowds.
“It’s really positive how quickly, both initially the tickets sold out, but even with the release of more. They’ve sold really quickly again. That’s really positive, that people are actually very interested in coming to see the games. Then for the games to obviously move up into Belfast and the bigger stadium (Kingspan). Hopefully that will get a turnout as well.”
With 17 Ireland players looking to make their World Cup debuts in the coming days and weeks, Baxter’s experience across top-level 15s and Sevens tournaments could prove vital in camp. While Ireland’s style of play may have changed to a certain degree since the 2014 competition, she has an idea of what to expect.
“I suppose you know what to expect with the environment over the three weeks. I know the game-plan and the style of play and all is a lot different, but the players that played there as well (three years ago), I’ve had a lot of game-time with them. It will definitely help,” she added.
Although very familiar with the rigours of a World Cup campaign, Baxter will be venturing into new territory this month. Following a discussion at the beginning of the 2016/17 season with Ireland 15s head coach Tierney and Anthony Eddy, the IRFU Director of Women’s and Sevens Rugby who also coaches Baxter in Sevens, the Cooke clubwoman has made the transition from the wing to openside flanker.
It is hoped that Baxter will offer a different dynamic to the Irish back row, and she enjoyed her recent run-out in the position during a trial game against Japan at UCD. “Anthony and Tom sat me down and said they wanted to look at me as a back row. I played the interpros with Ulster, got some time at seven, and then obviously the game against Japan (in June) as well.
“We will be playing in the Bowl, all our (pool) games, but to get some game-time on that pitch with the small crowd that was there. Get used to that. Obviously there’ll be bigger stands going up, and stuff around it. We’ve a lot to do to get out of the group – we’ve to play France, who’ve beaten us before, and Australia and Japan too.
“England took us apart (in the 2014 World Cup semi-final). We just didn’t come together for that game and England went on to win the World Cup, of course. But training has been going well. It has been very intense the last few months.”
That outing against Japan was Baxter’s first involvement at 15s level in quite a while, as she has been a busy member of the Ireland Sevens squad that qualified for their own World Cup, in San Francisco next summer. With a number of players stepping up from other sports, Baxter has been impressed by the development of the IRFU Sevens programme in a relatively short space of time, and believes they can kick on again in 2018.
“Loads of the players within Sevens have come from other sports, and it’s just taken a couple of seasons to gel and understand fully the Sevens. I think it’s really positive going into next season, finishing second in Europe and (we’ll) take that into next year. Hopefully build for a good World Cup in San Francisco then as well,” added the dual-code international, who is also determined to qualify with the Sevens side for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
For more on the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, visit the tournament website – www.rwcwomens.com. Buy your match tickets for #WRWC2017 now on www.ticketmaster.co.uk/wrwc2017 and www.ticketmaster.ie/wrwc2017.