Just two weeks after guiding Leinster to Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship glory, Tania Rosser and Hannah O’Connor are on opposing sides in today’s big Dublin derby that kicks off the Energia All-Ireland League season.
Leinster captain O’Connor will lead Blackrock College into battle against Old Belvedere at Stradbrook (kick-off 5pm), with the start of their Women’s Division title defence being live streamed on Irish Rugby TV.
With Johnny Garth not involved this season, Rosser takes charge of a youthful Belvedere team that will be hoping to go one step further this season after falling at the semi-final hurdle last December.
There are some notable absentees due to the Ireland Women’s 15s squad preparing for next month’s WX3 tournament. New head coach Scott Bemand has also brought in some fringe players to train at the IRFU High Performance Centre.
While Blackrock and Belvedere are both without a number of regular starters, including their Ireland Sevens contingent, it is very much a case of opportunity knocks for those who are stepping up in their place this evening.
Blackrock have also assembled a new coaching set-up following Ben Martin’s move to Exeter Chiefs as skills coach for their Women’s team. Former Ireland Sevens coach Stan McDowell is ‘Rock’s new head coach, ably assisted by the likes of John Fairley, Shayne Richardson and Laura Feely.
Elise O’Byrne-White, fresh from her try in Leinster’s Interpro final win over Munster, Aine Donnelly, Jemma Farrell and new captain Lesley Ring provide experience to a Belvedere starting XV that includes young Ireland internationals Emma Tilly and Jess Keating.
Strong-carrying front rower Lisa Callan, who has made the switch from Railway Union, will undoubtedly make an impact off the visitors’ bench, while Ulster flyer Megan Edwards has pace to burn as a former sprinter.
“Preparations have been a little different this year due to a large number of players representing their provinces during the Interprovincial Championship, however it’s given us a good opportunity to work with the remaining squad and the new players who have joined us,” said Rosser.
“Obviously we’ll miss our international players and those fringe players that have been included in Ireland’s training squad, but I feel we have a good depth within Belvedere to give us a good start to the season.
“It also gives other players an opportunity to play and develop at this level. Our squad was very young last year and I’m looking forward to seeing these players continue to develop this season.”
Although the vast majority of their 2022/23 league trophy-winning team are unavailable, Blackrock can still field two provincial captains in the back row, O’Connor and Ulster’s Beth Cregan, and Ulster duo Abby Moyles and Maeve Liston team up in a new-look half-back pairing.
Like Moyles, winger Ellen Boylan was part of the inaugural Ireland Under-20 squad and recently made the step up to play for Munster in the senior Interpros. Koren Dunne, a highly-rated Ireland U-18 international last year, packs down in the second row.
Experienced number 8 O’Connor, who captains Blackrock following Michelle Claffey’s retirement, commented: “Prep has been good. A whole host of new faces have brought energy and competition. We welcomed back our interprovincial players over the last few weeks as well.
“It’s a tough start but a good opportunity for people to put their hands up for jerseys in the first team. It’s very much an unknown on the first day out for everyone.
“New systems, new coaches, new players and it’s just about bedding in and getting our style of rugby out there and playing the way we want to. We’re looking forward to going about retaining the trophy this year.”
Claiming the scalp of the title holders would be a significant result for Belvedere, who return to Ollie Campbell Park for home games against Wicklow and Suttonians in their next two outings.
Former Ireland scrum half Rosser, who previously both played and coached at ‘Rock, acknowledged: “We were disappointed we weren’t able to get through the semi-final last year (against Railway Union) when we started off so well in the first half (going 19-5 up).
“Our squad was young, as I said, and with that campaign under their belts, it’ll certainly stand to them. Blackrock deserved their win in the final last year. They have very good leaders in their squad and strong forwards.
“They’re in a similar position to us with all their internationals unavailable, which shows how much work they’ve done over the years with their squad.