Scrum coach Rob Sweeney believes last Saturday’s TikTok Women’s Six Nations encounter with France will prove a valuable experience for the Ireland Women’s pack in the long run.
Following an intense battle with les Bleues, who are ranked third in the world, the new-look Ireland side fell to a frustrating 40-5 defeat in Toulouse.
Taken as a whole over 80 minutes, it was a steep learning curve for Greg McWilliams’ inexperienced charges, but one that Sweeney is hopeful can lead to an improved set-piece performance in the games to come.
“We knew ourselves going into it that an away trip to France, from playing them last year, that they were going to be very good,” he said, speaking ahead of Ireland’s Musgrave Park clash with Italy on Sunday. Tickets are available here.
“The big thing we’ve taken from it is that it’s a massive learning for our girls. As mad as it is, to be on the back end of a scrum like that, you do only learn and get better from it. So we’ve picked out a couple of bits.
“You look at Christy (Haney) who made her debut and she was outstanding. Linda (Djougang) played both sides, she did very well. There’s a lot of good stuff there and it is the start of this team’s journey. It will be fixed.
“John Fogarty is helping me out with it. David Nucifora was on site on Saturday helping out, so everyone is pulling together in the right direction with it.
“There’s a few bits that we see as key that we’re going to work hard on on Thursday and Friday to make it right for Sunday. It will be better for Sunday.”
One major area of concern for Ireland in France was the volume of their handling errors, with the Nichola Fryday-lead team finding it difficult to retain possession at crucial stages of the match.
Sweeney was able to identify one or two reasons behind those individual mistakes and – much like the scrum – he feels it is something they are capable of fixing for this weekend’s showdown with Italy in Cork (kick-off 5pm).
“I think the girls were playing a bit ahead in their mind and they lost a bit of focus from that. The girls are better than that, much better than that. They know and we know that that will be better on Sunday.
“It was just maybe Toulouse had a loud stadium, a couple of bits, maybe we got ahead of ourselves in our head. It definitely isn’t a skill level thing.
“Since Greg has been in we’ve been doing lots of catch-pass because it’s the basic skills. It was just one of those days.”
Given Ireland’s players have other commitments outside of rugby, whether that be work or studies, it will not be possible for the squad to get together collectively in preparation for the Italian game until Thursday.
Although it will be five days on from facing France, Sweeney stressed that Fryday and her team-mates are not remaining idle during the early part of the week.
It was obviously tough on Saturday. How are we doing it out of camp? It’s a funny one because you’re in constant communication the whole time. There’s scrum WhatsApp groups, there’s forwards WhatsApp groups.
“You’re speaking to the girls the whole time. The application of what they’re doing, the learning in what they’re doing, they’re studying what happened on Saturday.
“We’re talking about what needs to be done so that when we get to training on Thursday, it’s not just starting from then. We know what needs to be focused on.”
A long-time All-Ireland League stalwart with St. Mary’s College RFC and a former Ireland Club international, Sweeney also enjoyed stints as a professional player with Connacht and Rotherham Titans.
The 37-year-old Dubliner also worked as an underage coach with St. Mary’s before coming on board as Ireland Women’s scrum coach in November 2020.
Speaking as someone who relished the challenge of playing at tighthead prop for many years, he is now enjoying being in a position to help the development of a new generation of Irish women’s rugby stars.
“I absolutely love it, they’re an incredible group to work with. For me, it’s a smashing team and environment. The culture, working with Greg, Niamh (Briggs) and Dave (Gannon) is class. Then just the other staff, the players, it’s all a brilliant experience.
“I’ve done Leinster pathway stuff, I’ve coached rugby since I left school, for 20 years. It’s a brilliant environment to be in and I absolutely love it.”