Match day one of the first ever WXV3 tournament has arrived in Dubai, and the Ireland Women, with a new head coach and co-captains in place, are determined to make a winning start against Kazakhstan.
Ireland’s opening WXV3 match against Kazakhstan’s Nomads kicks off later today at 7.30pm local time/4.30pm Irish time.
Edel McMahon and Sam Monaghan will share the leadership duties up front, as part of an experienced pack that has prop Linda Djougang winning her 30th cap and Dorothy Wall switching to the second row, where she played most recently for Munster.
Four of the new caps from the 2022 summer tour to Japan feature in the back-line, namely Connacht ace Méabh Deely and the talented trio of Natasja Behan, Aoife Dalton and Dannah O’Brien from Interprovincial champions Leinster.
Sevens stars Eve Higgins and Béibhinn Parsons are also back on 15s duty. Higgins joins Dalton in an exciting centre partnership, and Parsons is relishing her first chance to play Test rugby alongside her Ballinasloe school friends Deely and Aoibheann Reilly, the replacement scrum half.
New Ireland head coach Scott Bemand has experience from his time with England Women of trying to get the balance right in terms of fulfilling the needs of the national 15s and Sevens and programmes. With careful planning, having players transition between both should be ‘mutually beneficial’, he believes.
Looking forward to seeing Parsons in full flight again in the green jersey, he said: “I actually remember Béibh getting her first caps for Ireland. I was coaching in another environment and she burst onto the scene really.
“She was sort of immediately impactful. We’re starting to see that in our own training, and we’re really excited to see what she can do in a 15s shirt.
“Our player pool is our player pool. We’ve seen other environments do it successfully where they’ve transitioned Sevens players and 15s players between programmes.
“Our programmes, the 15s programme and Sevens programme, have both outlined that this is going to be a key relationship to the success of Ireland Women going forward.”
Bemand has delved into a talented crop of young forwards, bringing the uncapped Sarah Delaney, Megan Collis and Eimear Corri onto the replacements bench. Her Interpro form with Connacht also means Nicole Fowley could make her first Test appearance since 2019.
A Cill Dara minis player who played for PortDara at youth level, Delaney (pictured below) has been part of Ireland Under-18 and Under-20 squads in the last 18 months. In addition, those provincial and national age grade pathways have brought through the likes of Sadhbh McGrath and Leah Tarpey.
For Bemand and his coaching staff, it is obviously important to give these emerging players opportunities to show they are good enough for this level, rewarding recent form too, but also striking the right balance in terms of what is best for the team going forward.
“There’s some fantastic potential that we get an opportunity to nurture and develop. High-level elite sport, you always want competition for places, and you want to see if you can push on and take the level up ultimately,” he explained.
Sarah is very young (at 18), such a wise head on young shoulders. She’s got an enormous amount of potential, playing at hooker.
“Eimear is a former sprinter, former winger, so (we’re) excited to see her. The first game I saw her, I turned up and saw her finish a try from 45 metres.
“We’re a month in and a few more training experiences, it definitely wasn’t an accident so there’s little bit of excitement that can be generated from what she can do in a bit of space.
“Megan has been part of a centralised programme, and has been biding her time and has massively earned the opportunity to come in and show us what she can do.
“As you know with evolving squads, we want the next girls pushing through. We’ve got a great opportunity to blood them in and to see what sort of levels they can get to.”
Kazakhstan have concentrated on Sevens in recent years and have only actually played nine Test matches since the 2014 Rugby World Cup. They hosted the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship in May, beating Hong Kong China 27-24 but losing the final comprehensively to Japan (72-0).
Their opening WX3 team includes three new caps, and is captained by flanker Karina Sazontova. Making their debuts are Tatyana Dadajanova and Anna Chebotar in the tight five, and Tatyana Kruchinkina who fills the openside berth.
Notably, they have three survivors in the starting XV that lined out in their last match against Ireland back at the 2014 World Cup – out-half Kundyzay Baktybayeva and forwards Natalya Kamendrovskaya and Symbat Zhamankulova.
Commenting on Kazakhstan, Bemand acknowledged: “Apparently they are a relatively fast, developing programme. I understand they have similar opportunities within their programmes with the Sevens and 15s.
“There will be an enormous amount that we don’t know and have to discover in-game. We have some games (footage) that we can rely on.
“But this first game in a new competition with a new coaching group, with a newish team, I think most of the focus is going to be on ourselves, to be honest.”
He added: “Obviously there’s a few new components to the staffing group, so we’ve got a bit of a fresh start at this point. There’s been an enormous amount of work done behind the scenes by the IRFU, in terms of how they’ve supported and built support around the playing structure.
“It does feel like a fresh start, and obviously that’s easy to say as a new head coach coming in, but I think it’s an exciting start. Occasionally you get opportunities like this to sort of reach down and see what talent can emerge.
“Younger players coming through, players being given opportunities like ‘Tricky’ (McMahon) and Sam (as co-captains). I think there’s an enormous amount of excitement within the group to see how they go.”
At a time when the Ireland Men are pushing hard for Rugby World Cup success, Bemand is mindful of what these next few weeks in Dubai could do for his side in terms of ’embedding a training and playing identity’ and giving them a springboard towards the Six Nations.
Qualifying for the 2025 World Cup is the key immediate target, and finishing third in the 2024 Six Nations is the ‘first controllable’ according to the Hereford-born coach, who added that progress to WXV2 could also ‘be part of the qualification pathway’.
There’s great opportunity in Ireland at the moment, obviously there’s excitement around the Men’s World Cup. The fan base is everywhere, we’ve seen that, and I think this is an opportunity for us to embrace that and get on the back of it a little bit.
“The players know their responsibility within that, so for us, yes, we want to see winning performances, we want to see a brand of rugby that people can latch onto and get excited about.
“We want to be putting ourselves in the mix for these big competitions, whether that be Six Nations or World Cups. There’s a really nice level of excitement that comes with this start of a journey. I think they’re ready.”