More than most, Cooke and Ulster star Ashleigh Baxter knows how demanding it can be to juggle 15s and Sevens international rugby. Her latest quest sees her in San Francisco for this weekend’s Rugby World Cup Sevens with the Ireland Women.
When she lines out against England at AT&T Park in Friday’s Rugby World Cup Sevens opener, the aerospace engineering graduate will be representing Ireland in a World Cup for the fourth time in six seasons – showing her class and versatility in both codes.
At just 21 years of age and a 15s Grand Slam winner, she featured for the Ireland Women’s Sevens team during their World Cup debut in Moscow in 2013. She went on to play a key role on the right wing for the 15s side in the following year’s World Cup – when they recorded a historic victory over New Zealand – before switching to the back row for the 2017 tournament on home soil last August.
In spite of the high expectations that surrounded the girls in green this time last year, they ended up with a disappointing eighth-place finish. With thoughts of that frustrating campaign well and truly parked at this stage, Ashleigh Baxter is eager to create new memories in the green shirt in the coming days.
“Of course the 15s World Cup was disappointing. I suppose this is a new opportunity and the chance to go again,” admitted Ireland’s most-capped Sevens international, speaking at last week’s squad announcement at the Henry Street store of team sponsors, Intersport Elverys.
Baxter is the sole survivor from the squad that travelled to Russia five years ago, with the 2013 line-up including a host of star names who enjoyed Grand Slam success three months previously. Jenny Murphy, Claire Molloy, Sophie Spence, Larissa Muldoon, Lynne Cantwell and Alison Miller helped Ireland qualify for the Cup quarter-final which they lost to the USA.
Although players continue to switch between both codes, Baxter acknowledges the professionalism of Sevens has grown in the intervening years. “I think back then we had a lot of people who’d been around 15s and we had a good core group of 15s players back then that obviously just carried on training together for the Sevens.
“Now Sevens has become more professional, it has become its own game. It’s just a different group and hoping to do the same thing as before,” continued the Castlewellan native, who first played Tag rugby as a youngster and joined Belfast Harlequins aged 18.
Unlike their male counterparts, the Ireland Women have been a permanent fixture on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series circuit in recent seasons. This has given them the chance to regularly play the world’s elite teams, including England, their opponents on Friday in the round-of-16 encounter (kick-off 12.12pm local time/8.12pm Irish time) (live on eir Sport 1/www.worldrugby.org live streaming in certain countries/highlights on ITV 4).
Indeed, during last month’s Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix Series tournament in Marcoussis, Ireland gained a confidence-boosting 39-7 victory over England in the Bronze final, albeit that the English side was missing a number of their frontline players.
Alongside a brace of tries each from Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe and Eve Higgins, there were singles from Stacey Flood, Louise Galvin and Aoife Doyle as the Ireland Women claim their biggest ever win over England in either 15s or the Sevens code.
The foundations for that impressive triumph were largely based on Ireland’s excellent ball retention – something Baxter feels they will need to replicate if they are to prevail in Friday’s eagerly-awaited opening Rugby World Cup Sevens clash.
“I think it definitely taught us how important it is to retain possession. We had possession for the entire game. If we can keep possession again and win our restarts, I think we can definitely beat them. At the moment, all we’re thinking about is beating England in the first game. Obviously there’s no group stage. It’s knockout. That’s important for us, to get to the top-eight this weekend,” she added.
The Ireland Sevens jerseys are available to buy online here from Elverys Intersport, official sports retailer of the IRFU.
IRELAND WOMEN’S SEVENS Squad (2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, AT&T Park, San Francisco, USA, Friday, July 20-Saturday, July 21):
Kathy Baker (Blackrock/Leinster)
Ashleigh Baxter (Cooke/Ulster)
Claire Boles (Railway Union/Ulster)
Aoife Doyle (Shannon/Railway Union/Munster)
Katie Fitzhenry (Blackrock/Leinster)
Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster)
Louise Galvin (UL Bohemian/Munster)
Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster)
Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum) (capt)
Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union/Munster)
Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird (UL Bohemians/Munster)
Audrey O’Flynn (Ireland Women’s Sevens Programme)
Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
IRELAND WOMEN’S RWC SEVENS Fixtures –
Friday, July 20:
Round of 16: Ireland v England, AT&T Park, San Francisco, 12.12pm local time/8.12pm Irish time
Saturday, July 21:
More details on the Rugby World Cup Sevens are available here. Tickets are available to purchase here via the tournament website. There are single-day tickets in all seating categories and three-day tickets.