Eight months on from donning Munster red in Belfast, Maeve Óg O’Leary is hoping to experience that winning feeling again when Ireland host Scotland in their TikTok Women’s Six Nations finale at Kingspan Stadium.
O’Leary was at openside flanker as Munster began their road to Interprovincial glory last August with a 50-5 victory at the home of Ulster Rugby. International honours have followed for the 22-year-old since then.
She won her first Ireland cap as a replacement against the USA last November, and made her Six Nations debut off the bench during last Sunday’s 69-0 defeat to reigning champions England.
Although dubbing it a ‘devastating experience’ with regards to the scoreline, O’Leary says the players have come back into camp with ‘a clear head’ and are hugely determined to finish off the Championship with a home win over Scotland.
“It was obviously unbelievable playing in front of a crowd of nearly 16,000 (in Leicester),” she said. “Just looking at the performance the girls put on in that first half, they really showcased themselves and the defence was immense.
“We’ve another job to go for now. We’ve obviously had our Monday and Tuesday away from camp, time to ourselves to process all the emotions that we felt.
“We’re just trusting our process throughout this campaign, this process that Greg (McWilliams) and the coaching staff are building.
“We want to be able to put on a performance for the home crowd and hopefully end our Six Nations on a high. The girls are looking forward to that.”
McWilliams’ battle-hardened charges will not lack for motivation given Scotland ended Ireland’s Rugby World Cup qualification hopes with that heart-breaking defeat in Parma back in September.
Kingspan Stadium is their third home venue of the 2022 tournament, having drawn crowds of 6,113 and 5,039 respectively at the RDS and Musgrave Park. That day down in Cork for the Italy match left a lasting impression on O’Leary.
Asked about getting to play internationals around the country, she acknowledged: “Down in Cork we have young girls teams from Kerry and Cork and Waterford, and it’s just unbelievable that they’re able to see the 15s Women’s national team in person.
Hopefully we can be good role models for them. It’s really important for them to be able to see it and they can have something like that to reach for. The fact that we’re able to move around (for home games) is massive.
“I think it’s going to be huge in growing the game at that grassroots level. In Cork we met a few people in coffee shops and they expressed their interest.
“We started new conversations with people who mightn’t have had conversions around women’s rugby in these different areas. I think it’s been massively important that we’ve been able to make it happen to be able to go around Ireland.”
Scotland may be bottom of the table at present, but were in winning positions at half-time against both Wales and Italy. They also managed to score tries against Grand Slam challengers England and France.
The Scots ran Ireland close in the sides’ 2020 Six Nations meeting in Donnybrook, losing out 18-14, and do have fond memories of visiting Dublin four years ago when tries from Helen Nelson and Chloe Rollie inspired them to a 15-12 triumph.
Just as they did a few weeks ago in bouncing back against Italy, O’Leary is eyeing up a swift return to winning ways, noting: “We showed against Italy how powerful and threatening we can be, so I think it’s going to be another opportunity for us this week.
“Scotland are going to be an exciting side to play against, they can absolutely turn it on and it’s definitely going to be a massive challenge. But I think it’s going to be an opportunity for us to showcase definitely in attack again.
“To be on home soil is massive, definitely for the northern girls as well. It’s hugely exciting, it adds that little bit of extra buzz to the whole weekend.
“Scotland are a young, exciting team as well. It’s going to be a tough game, a good battle. For us, we’re definitely going to focus on ourselves and our own process.”
The Tipperary native, who was an Energia All-Ireland League runner-up with Blackrock College this season, came into the Ireland set-up at a transitional time with the likes of former captain Ciara Griffin and Lindsay Peat retiring and Adam Griggs stepping down as head coach.
The November Tests whetted O’Leary’s appetite for international rugby and she has relished being part of this ‘new era’ for the squad. Sale Sharks and Ulster’s Vicky Irwin steps up on Saturday as Ireland’s seventh new cap of the 2022 Six Nations.
“There’s lots of new faces in, but it’s hugely exciting. I’m still fresh coming onto the scene. The culture of the team, they still have that base and it’s very exciting,” admitted the Munster back rower.
“We’ve such a tight-knit squad and we’ve also got to play against each other in the AIL and the Interpros earlier in the season. It’s amazing to now be able to play alongside some of those players.
“Even though it’s been a mixed campaign (in the Six Nations), we’ve been able to carry each other through. It is a lot of girls’ first-time experience in here. They’re still buzzed off the fact that it is that and I think that’s massive going forward.”
There is plenty of scope for O’Leary to push on in her Test rugby career with an anticipated Ireland summer tour coming up, while a restructured 2023 calendar will feature World Rugby’s new WXV annual global competition.
With ambitions with the oval ball for this year and beyond, the DCU Masters in Public Relations and Strategic Communications student added: “I’ve really enjoyed the experience so far. I can’t wait to keep it going. We’re obviously playing a fast-paced, always-going-forward style of rugby which is really, really exciting.
“Definitely an emphasis on intent, energy around the field always. That’s what we want. We want to be full of energy, we want to be threatening, we want to be going forward all the time.
“Greg has brought loads to our game as an Irish squad. We’re all very aware of the position that we’re in in terms of we are a young side, we have lots of new caps coming in, and the experience in the team is definitely lower than the others.
We’re all aware of that and we know that we are building Irish Women’s rugby and building this process with Greg and with the coaching staff. We just can’t wait to go again on Saturday and show the people of Ireland what we can do.
“We’ve been building on each performance and we’ve been improving. That is something that’s really exciting to see that we’re able to do and that we have that capacity to improve and to learn. It’s at home, it’s going to be a good one.”