In the five-and-a-half months since they last played a Test match, the Ireland Women have been focusing on key areas of improvement as they strive for a successful 2021 Six Nations campaign.
That most recent encounter – a 21-7 victory over Italy last October – was almost eight months on from their previous fixture, a defeat to England in the third round of the 2020 Championship.
The major gaps between games have given the Ireland squad an opportunity to reflect, and scrum half Kathryn Dane believes they are in a good place ahead of Saturday’s Pool B visit to Cardiff Arms Park to face familiar rivals Wales (kick-off 5pm).
“The strength and conditioning part of our game has definitely doubled if not tripled since last year’s Six Nations – just because we’ve had so much time to work on it,” explained Dane.
“Especially building up our robustness and physical resilience. I think as a smaller nation compared to the other countries, we’ve definitely worked on that and it’ll stand to us.
“In terms of our attack and defence, we’ve had Adam (Griggs) as our attack coach and Kieran Hallett as our defence coach, really working on training us at an intensity that’s above match intensity so that we can perform at that really high tempo.
“In that sense, our scale execution, our decision-making, our intuition and instincts around the field should hopefully have improved. We won’t really know for certain until we get on the pitch on Saturday but hopefully that’ll show.”
At a time when many other sports are yet to receive the green light for a safe return to play, Griggs’ charges are being offered a platform to showcase what they are all about as a group.
While this could add a certain weight on the shoulders of the players, the 24-year-old Dane, who now has 10 international caps, is used to being demanding of herself.
I can’t speak for the other girls (but) I put an awful lot of pressure on myself and maybe it’s a scrum half thing, I’m not sure.
“Because we’ve had so much time to work on ourselves and work on every single detail that we have, I know myself I’m thinking hopefully this weekend is a chance to display what we have learnt.
“I suppose we’re in a very privileged position compared to other sports in that we have been able to train for those 20-plus weeks together. There is a little bit of an expectation on myself to go out there and show everyone what you’ve got and make the nation proud.”
Despite the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was an encouraging year overall for Dane. She started all four games that Ireland played in the Six Nations, holding off competition from the likes of Nicole Cronin and Ailsa Hughes for the scrum half spot.
“It’s a great honour and it’s amazing that I have been able to remain injury-free and build really good partnerships with the 10s and the rest of the group so it’s really positive.
“As 9s, we’re all sharing with each other and making sure we’re up to scratch and ready to take on any challenge as it comes up.
“But I’m delighted to have gotten those starts (in a run of games) and it’s really lovely to be part of such a competitive squad.”
Like most people in the past twelve months, Dane has had to readjust her routine substantially. Used to playing rugby at three different levels – club, provincial and international – she was forced to concentrate on individual training when the sporting world was ground to halt last March.
Nonetheless, she has kept busy during a tricky period, between working with Leinster Rugby’s Academy squad as part of a physiotherapy internship and undertaking a PhD at Trinity College that investigates injuries related to tackling in Women’s rugby.
Speaking from my own experience, it was quite challenging. I’ve been used to playing interpros with Ulster, club rugby with Old Belvedere and having that international window to get game-time.
“So it is a bit of a shock to the system when you’re in training the entire time and the coaches have been excellent in keeping the camps very focused and having set goals and outcomes to work on.
“But when you’re working with Leinster full-time during the week and trying to balance a PhD with it, and coming off the back of an exhausting week of camp, it can be a little bit tiring.
“It definitely challenged my motivation at times but we’re just so lucky we have amazing coaches and support systems in place that keep us in the right headspace and keep us motivated.”
Whilst still in the early stages of her PhD, it is proving to be a fascinating process for Dane – given how closely it connects to her own personal journey as a rugby player.
“It’s looking at safety and optimal tackle outcomes in Women’s rugby,” she noted. “Just to help key stakeholders, like the referees, coaches and policy makers, to make the game safer for female rugby players.
“I’m doing a bit of a literature review at the moment. We’re finding that there’s very little out there in the women’s game. A lot of it has been informed by research in men’s.
“Obviously we’re not just small men, so it would be really good to start profiling the women’s game itself and see if there’s any differences or comparisons.”
When Dane first broke into the Ireland 15s squad in 2019, she was joined by fellow Enniskillen native Claire Boles. The Railway Union forward is someone that Dane has known for several years and she was delighted to see her receiving another call-up for this year’s Championship.
“It’s nice to see another Fermanagh girl on the panel. Myself and Claire have played (together) from schooldays so it’s always nice to have her there.
“She knows me inside out and I know her inside out, so it works nicely then when it comes up to game-time. We know whether we give each other space or have a chat,” she added.