Gillian McDarby, the IRFU’s Head of Women’s Performance & Pathways, was encouraged to see a number of young players grasp their opportunity to shine recently on the Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship stage.
The Interpros’ return to an early season window in August and September proved to be the ideal platform for the likes of Eimear Corri and Ruth Campbell, Leinster’s title-winning second row pairing, to parachute themselves into the Ireland squad.
They were brought in by new Ireland head coach Scott Bemand as additional players for his first training camps, but such has been their form that they are now on the cusp of winning their first senior international caps.
The pair’s provincial team-mates, Leah Tarpey and Megan Collis, have also been bumped up to the final 30-strong squad for Ireland’s debut WXV campaign in Dubai, which kicks off against Kazakhstan on Friday, October 13.
In all, there are seven uncapped players in Ireland’s travelling party, six of whom were part of the inaugural Ireland Under-20 squad. Senior-capped prop Niamh O’Dowd was also part of that age-grade tour to Italy in July.
Some of this emerging talent has been on the IRFU’s radar in recent years, but it has certainly been a whirlwind few months for 20-year-old lock Campbell who, along with her Leinster and Ireland recognition, helped MU Barnhall to Leinster League Division 1 and Energia All-Ireland Junior Cup success.
“The Interpros were very successful,” acknowledged McDarby, speaking at a media briefing this week. “It was nice to see Leinster take the win this year. It was Munster last year. Obviously Connacht taking the victory over Leinster, and Ulster having their first win in a number of years.
“Just the competitive nature of those games. we can see that the game is growing, the level of coaching and the standard of play is increasing year on year.
“So, that gave us an opportunity to identify new players to come into our system for the WX3 campaign that we’re launching in Dubai in the coming weeks.”
As well as the continued growth of the Under-18 Women’s Six Nations Festival, which was first played in 2022, the confirmed expansion of the Ireland Under-20 programme to encompass a full season is a huge boost for both the prospective players involved and the pathways feeding into it.
This year’s introduction of the Ireland Under-20 Women’s team was an exciting development under the tutelage of IRFU Women’s National Talent Squad and Talent Identification Manager, Katie Fitzhenry, and head coach Neill Alcorn, culminating in valuable training and match time together on tour in L’Aquila.
The development of Ireland’s future stars will be further accelerated in 2024 as McDarby explained that the scope of the national U-20 programme, supported by the National and Provincial Talent coaches, is widening with Ireland set to compete in the inaugural U-20 Women’s Six Nations Festival.
Underlining how important it is for Ireland’s leading U-20 players to get the chance to test themselves against their peers from other nations, she revealed:
The Under-20s’ first campaign in Italy was quite successful and on the back of that, we’ve decided to put in place a programme for the 2023/24 season.
“We’ll kick it off for the Under-20s (with the first camp) at the end of October. We’ll have a full season plan supporting them, which will lead into the Six Nations Festival in June and July of 2024.”
Another one of the building blocks, which was implemented in May in response to recommendations laid out in the IRFU’s ‘Women In Rugby’ report, was the appointment of eight Women’s National Talent Squad (WNTS) Pathway staff, based at Provincial Centre of Excellence hubs around the country.
These Talent and Athletic Performance coaches are playing key roles in the effort to grow the playing base from age-grade level upwards, as they identify and attract young players with promise (aged 16 to 23) and provide them with co-ordinated programmes across skills and strength and conditioning.
McDarby gave the example of Connacht Talent coach Larissa Muldoon, the 2013 Grand Slam winner, who was at ATU (the Atlantic Technological University) this week with a stall set up to introduce potential players to what rugby has to offer, whether that is playing locally in different formats of the game, lining out for your club or province, or making it all the way to the Olympics or a Rugby World Cup.
“It’s just about being seen and getting the exposure out there, young girls seeing what’s happening and asking the questions,” said McDarby, who was a member of Cycling Ireland’s elite senior squad in the early 2000s.
“They’ve set up stalls at Freshers’ weeks. There’s plenty of streams of the game for them to come into. Negotiations are also taking place with the Universities currently to get a Sevens competition up and running in March or April of next year.”
Commenting on the work being done by those recently-appointed coaches in the provincial hubs, she added: “There’s been great progress in the Pathways side of things. The WNTS programmes are fully up and running. We now have the Centres of Excellence up and running.
“There are six centres located throughout the provincial structures within the Universities. They’re all being exposed to coaching and athletic development within the system, with training taking place twice a week.”
Along with the coaches, Elaine Ryan, the new Ireland Women’s 15s Programme Manager, and other support staff, supporting Bemand’s youthful squad in Dubai will be two more recent and noteworthy appointments made by the IRFU.
Sean Ryan has come in as the High Performance Leadership & Culture lead, and Lisa Doyle, who has moved from Leinster Rugby to take up the position of Communications Manager with the IRFU, will manage the team’s media duties in Dubai.
“In terms of support, we’re looking at performance support first,” explained McDarby. “It’s about getting the clarity of what the game-plan is about and what we, as a team, are about.
So that’s where Sean comes into the fold. He’s there to support both the coaching staff and the players around campaign planning, clarity, culture and leadership.
“We’ve already started our programme in terms of performance mapping, goal-set planning. I think once we get that right, everything else kind of follows.
“There was probably a bit of ambiguity around our game-plan in the last cycle, so we’ve taken that on board and as a result of that now, we’ve put a huge focus on our culture and our leadership, and getting those streams right within the programmes.
“Scott coming in to provide the clarity around the game-plan just further enhances that. In terms of support from the media side of things, we have Lisa who is the new media manager that will be travelling with us to Dubai.
“She will be there to field anything that kind of rears its head, but also guide the players on how to respond to things. Sean will be travelling with us to Dubai as well.
“We will have daily catch-ups then, we have feelers out watching everything that’s happening on the ground with the players, and we have our arms around them making sure they’re feeling supported and they know they’re getting the support.
“It comes back to performance support, clarity around the game-plan, making sure that they have know they have the right culture and support being built within the system. That will drive it forward. That’s where I see the differences being made.”
A new addition to the calendar last season was the Celtic Challenge between Ireland, Scotland and Wales, a venture that is supported by World Rugby and that aims to be a sustainable competition model to bridge the gap between the player pathway and the international game.
It offered valuable exposure to cross-border competition to international and emerging club players in consideration for the TikTok Women’s Six Nations squad. Last season’s unbeaten Combined Provinces XV featured 20 members of the squad that Bemand will bring to Dubai.
Among the players who impressed during that pre-Six Nations window last January and February were Wicklow’s Ella Roberts, the leading try scorer with four tries, Aoife Wafer, Aoife Dalton, and versatile three-try forward Deirbhile Nic a Bháird, whose current season has unfortunately been derailed by a significant knee injury.
As projected for this second year of the Celtic Challenge, the three partner Unions will field two teams each this time around with an announcement coming in due course.
“We’re still going through finalising the programme for the Celtic Challenge with Scotland and Wales. We’ll hope to announce (in November) what the campaign will look like and the competition structure.
“We’ll all be putting two teams in place from each Union, so there will be six teams in that competition structure versus three (the Combined Provinces, the Thistles and Wales Development XV) in it last year,” added McDarby.