New Ireland head coach Scott Bemand is excited by the potential of the young squad he will take to Dubai for the WXV3 tournament, which begins on Friday week with an opening fixture against Kazakhstan.
Led by newly-announced co-captains Sam Monaghan and Edel McMahon, the 30-player group has an average age of just 23, with teenagers Clara Barrett, Sadhbh McGrath (both 19) and Sarah Delaney (18) the youngest of the lot.
Barrett and Delaney are two of the seven uncapped players who will travel to the UAE. Ruth Campbell, Megan Collis, Eimear Corri, Katie Whelan and Fiona Tuite are the others whose form has them on the brink of a senior international breakthrough.
Bemand is looking forward to overseeing this fresh start for the girls in green, who can depend on an experienced clutch of forwards, including 29-times capped prop Linda Djougang, and the attacking skills of Sevens stars Béibhinn Parsons and Eve Higgins.
Having only been in the role since August 21, he admitted: “It’s been fast and furious but immensely enjoyable. Obviously I’d been in a previous environment (as lead coach and attack coach with the England Women’s team) for eight years.
“It doesn’t mean it gets comfortable but you kind of know your way around the place. I’ve really enjoyed coming in, I’ve really enjoyed seeing how it operates over here. Actually really enjoyed seeing where they’re trying to take it (the Women’s programme).”
One player who unfortunately misses out on Ireland’s debut WXV campaign is Deirbhile Nic a Bháird. The dynamic Munster forward damaged her left knee during a recent training game against the USA, and unfortunately it is ‘a significant injury’ according to Bemand.
The Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship was front and centre in kicking off the new season, and its move back to an August-September schedule allowed the Ireland coaching team to run the rule over a number of capped players and potential newcomers.
Leinster’s recovery from a losing start in Galway to being crowned champions in Cork was followed closely by Bemand, who spoke about his first impressions of the title winners’ second rows Campbell (pictured above) and Corri.
I’d watched every Interpro to the point where I’d come in (to the job), and obviously watched it all anyway when I was in. I think the role of the Interpros, or the provincial teams, going forward is going to be big.
“We will need the support, we will need the alliance of the provincial set-ups to continue to provide high level playing opportunities for our girls, but you’ve also got to think about the next girls coming through.
“The 19 or 20-year-olds putting their hands up for selection and being able to show that they can perform on quite a big stage, the Interpros, the finals. You can see the intent across groups when they’re playing other provinces seems to step up a level.
“For me that brings a certain level of pressure with it anyway because people care about it. So it was really interesting to see how people perform. Quite often when you’re looking at things, you’re looking for aptitude.
“The first game I saw Eimear Corri (pictured below) play, she finished (a try) from 45 metres. You’ll be delighted to see she’s been doing it in training. So you kind of spot somebody who is relatively raw in a position still. She was a winger up until a couple of years ago.
“You remember the England and Lions player Tom Croft, as soon as I saw her, I just thought, ‘we’ve got a player here’. You spot these bits of aptitude and bits of potential.
“I guess the skill of a staffing group is to pull those bits of potential together and try and create the perfect jigsaw puzzle. Ruth Campbell stood out in a slightly different way. She went around whacking things!
“Kind of having that raw talent with that bit of fire in the belly, sort of surmised for me what I see whenever I see successful Ireland teams.
“The Interpros have been quite significant in giving them the opportunity and the space to grow into the player that lets somebody like me come in and go, ‘she’s got something about her’.
“You get them into our group and you test where they are, you test to see whether they can elevate it when they have a stronger group around them. Both are flying, absolutely flying, so very exciting to see them go.”
Adding to the growing sense of anticipation around this new-look Ireland squad is that they get an immediate chance to make a mark on WXV, the new international competition that World Rugby has introduced to provide a global platform and more game-time between Rugby World Cups.
While disappointed to emerge from the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations without a win, the girls in green will head to Dubai as the highest ranked team in WXV3. They are 11th in the current World Rugby Women’s Rankings, two places above Spain with Kazakhstan in 18th and Colombia in 25th.
Of course, rankings could for little unless you perform on the pitch. Ireland will need no reminding of that as Spain, Japan and Scotland have turned them over when playing as the lower-ranked team in the last two-and-a-bit years.
Asked about his aims for his side’s WXV bow, Bemand explained: “International rugby has a massive performance focus. Having a winning identity would be important for that. we’re not shying away from that.
“I guess the opportunity that we’ve got with, (a) some of the teams that we’re playing, it allows us to compete, to learn what our playing identity, what our training identity is, but it also allows us the importance to discover who’s next, what talent is coming through the Irish pathway.
“I actually think some of the girls that we’ve named in the squad will go on to become big, big players for us, as early as next year. It kind of gives you the opportunity to unearth it and develop it. Bring them inside the circle, as it were.”
Their target over the first year or so of Bemand’s tenure is to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2025. It was a crushing blow to miss out on qualification for the last World Cup, so with the next one taking place just across the water in England, it is of paramount importance that Ireland are one of the 16 competing teams.
With a chance to promote a third European team from WXV3 to WXV2 next year, at least the five top ranked non-qualified teams at the end of WXV 2024 will qualify for the Rugby World Cup. The next six teams will qualify via regional competitions next year.
Bemand brings invaluable coaching experience from past World Cups, having been part of the England set-up for their runners-up finishes at the 2017 and 2021 tournaments. Senior coach John McKee has been involved in Men’s World Cup campaigns with both Tonga and Fiji.
Backs coach Niamh Briggs played at two World Cups, memorably playing a starring role at full-back as Ireland beat New Zealand for the first time in 2014.
The Waterford woman was part of the 2014 tournament’s Dream Team, but an Achilles injury sadly ruled her out of the 2017 World Cup on home soil when she was captain.
“Firstly, there’s certainly a short-term goal whereby we want to get to the World Cup,” acknowledged Bemand. “My angle on that is get to a World Cup and you want to have successful performances within a World Cup – for me, that’s looking at knockout stages and we want to be getting back to that sort of level.
It’s a challenge for us, a little bit of a challenge for us in terms of mindset, but when we look at what players we’ve got, when we look at what capability we’ve got, we’re not going to compare ourselves to group stage World Cup entrants.
“We’re going to compare ourselves to World Cup challengers. We want to be in that hat.
“Now whether we do that come this first World Cup, we’ll certainly go for it. But by the time we get to 2029, I’d certainly like us to be up in and around those World Cup contenders.”
The former Harlequins, Leicester Tigers and Bath scrum half added: “Having coached against Ireland Women a few times, you never doubt the on-pitch heart and grit and graft. so we want to capture that but frame it a little bit differently.
“We want to fire some shots on our terms. I think we’ve got some capability. I’m immensely excited by some of the capability we’ve got in the set-piece, the back five, and some of the running talent we’ve got in the backs.
“It’s about connecting that up and joining it together. We’ve got a responsibility to grow the game within Ireland, so the brand of rugby has got to be exciting. It’s got to be fast-paced, it’s got to be something that people want to go and see.
“We’ll put our best foot forward, what we believe from a performance perspective, hopefully that will entice people in to watch us play. Grow the crowds at stadiums, and also the online following, which will continue to grow the game.”