The ‘exciting brand of rugby’ that Leinster head coach Tania Rosser wants them to play has co-captain Hannah O’Connor looking forward to the Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship even more than usual.
O’Connor was an Interprovincial title winner with Leinster in both 2018 and 2019, before missing the 2021/22 edition through injury when Munster were crowned champions by overcoming the Blues 19-7 in the decider.
The multi-talented number 8, appointed as co-captain this season alongside fellow forward Christy Haney, is at the forefront of Leinster’s bid to wrestle the trophy back from their familiar foes.
O’Connor and Haney return to Energia Park, the scene of their Energia All-Ireland League final win with Blackrock College last month, when Leinster begin their Interprovincial campaign against Connacht on Saturday (kick-off 2.30pm).
Coming off the back of a 10-match unbeaten run with Blackrock, the pair are determined to keep the winning momentum going with O’Connor saying: “We got straight into Leinster, so got to hit the ground running with that.
“We finished the match, the re-fixed AIL final, on the Saturday and then rolled straight into it by Monday, Wednesday. It was a very good Christmas definitely, up there with the best of them alright! We’ve rolled straight into the Interpros.
“It’s been a really good build-up. At the end of last week, we had about four sessions of kind of two-day camps together, of which we got to have a training game against Ulster.
“That was invaluable to get a hit-out against them, to get proper match practice and get to look at combinations and things like that. It’s been a really good cohesive block together.”
Fellow Ireland international Haney was also part of Leinster’s most recent Interpro triumphs, in 2018 and 2019, and believes the competition, shifted to a New Year window, remains a key part of the Women’s rugby calendar.
That is especially true this season with the launch of the Women’s 15s High Performance Programme by the IRFU, and the repositioned Interpros and the newly-created Celtic Challenge competition leading into the TikTok Women’s Six Nations.
While acknowledging those developments, including the contracts taken up by some of their 15s team-mates, Haney said: “It’s great and it’s moving in a great direction, so we can be really excited about that as well. But for the next three weeks, it’s all Interpros.
“With Leinster, we’ve been training in the background while the AIL was going on. It was nice to transition from club into full-time Leinster to give it all of our 100% attention.
“The Interpros are a thing unto themselves. I’ve been here the last six years now and each Interpro is that little blip of incredible rugby where you get to play against your best mates and it’s all out, no holes barred.
“You just put it all on the pitch and that’s what I love about the Interpros, you get one chance to prove a point. That’s what we’re going to come out this weekend and do, we’re going to come out 100%.”
Born Stateside in Leesburg, Virginia, Haney went from softball to rugby, only picking up the oval ball at 18, but she had made her mark on all levels of the game since moving to Ireland in 2016 to study a Master’s degree in structural engineering.
2022 was a huge year for her personally, capped off by Blackrock’s AIL trophy lift. She won her first Ireland cap against France during the Six Nations and played in the home wins over Italy and Scotland before touring Japan in August.
The 28-year-old prop, whose grandmother hails from Borrisokane in Tipperary, is understandably enthusiastic about what is to come in the next few weeks as both herself and O’Connor lead an ambitious Leinster side.
Asked about the co-captaincy and how it will work between them, Haney said: “We’ve known each other years now. I love playing on the pitch with Hannah and I think we work really well together as team-mates. I see that transferring right over into our captaincy.”
O’Connor is in full agreement, adding: “Club apart, myself and Christy know each well. I think it’s probably more than just the two of us (as co-captains), you’re looking at your leaders amongst the backs and you’re seeing what works well.”
Their faces both light up when taking about the province’s new coaching team, led by 2013 Grand Slam winner Rosser. She was previously a Leinster assistant coach and, more recently, was attack coach for Old Belvedere in this season’s Women’s AIL.
Giving an insight into the sort of game-plan Rosser is implementing, O’Connor explained: “It’s a credit to the style that Tania wants to play, she’s encouraging us to try things and to play that kind of offloading, running style of rugby.
“Who doesn’t want to be involved in that kind of rugby? It’s definitely a heads-up, quick game and it’s definitely for me, a style I very much love playing.
“It’s an exciting brand of rugby to play, and hopefully on Saturday it’s an exciting brand to watch and that it gets us across the line.”
The goal-kicking back rower says the Leinster squad are ‘champing at the bit to get into this weekend’, and Haney hopes they reap the rewards of their hard work in terms of registering an opening win against Connacht.
With only one home fixture across the three rounds, the pressure is on Rosser’s charges to lay down an early marker ahead of trips to Cork and Belfast when the final destination of the trophy for 2023 will be decided.
“The last Interpros was right out of Covid, we were all just so excited to be back playing rugby. There was a bit of magic in that, being back on the pitch together and being together,” admitted Haney.
“We had laid a lot of foundations we are going to see come through in this Interpros. But what Tania’s brought is a whole system and a whole set-up that we’re really excited to implement, and that includes quick rucks, offloading, exciting rugby.
“It’s a massive start to our campaign (being at home). Having the fans there, having the crowd just brings that buzz and that sharpness to the game that we love to have.
“We all love playing at Energia Park, it’s the house of a good few memories for us so it’s really exciting to have that be our first match and for us to make our mark on these Interpros.”