Ireland head coach Scott Bemand has called up Clara Nielson to replace the injured Aoife Doyle, following their record 109-0 win over Kazakhstan in the first round of the WXV3 tournament.
Winger Doyle was sidelined for the Dubai opener and will miss the rest of the competition. Bemand has taken the opportunity to add to his forward ranks with the addition of Exeter Chiefs hooker Nielson.
The IQ Rugby recruit was part of the Ireland squad that toured Japan in August 2022 and made her debut off the bench against France earlier this year. She also had appearances off the bench in the Italy, England and Scotland matches.
“Unfortunately we lost Aoife Doyle through injury before we played a game,” admitted Bemand, speaking in the aftermath of the 17-try victory over Kazakhstan’s Nomads.
“That’s always tough for a player. Delighted to call out Clara Nielson. Clearly it’s not ‘like for like’, but we just thought perhaps we’re a little bit thin at hooker out here for the duration of the three weeks.
“I’ve taken that as an opportunity to bring Clara over from Exeter Chiefs. She’s known to the group, has played within the group. Known to me before anyway, so it’ll be interesting and really good for her to put her best foot forward.”
Ireland made a business-like start to their inaugural WXV campaign by putting Kazakhstan to the sword. Eve Higgins and Mastercard player-of-the-match Béibhinn Parsons scored four tries each, while there were promising debuts for Leinster’s Eimear Corri, Megan Collis and Sarah Delaney.
Finishing bottom in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations landed the girls in green in the third division of the WXV, so restoring confidence and building winning momentum is key as they bid to get back on track under a new head coach.
After seeing his charges register Ireland’s first win in seven Tests, Bemand said: “I’m just pleased that the girls have been able to take training onto the pitch. When scores start to rack up, you don’t want to get too giddy with it, too early.
“But there was clearly a confidence piece that we need to grow in these first steps. We’ll enjoy that, we’ll take an enormous amount of confidence from the variety of tries, and there’s been some key bits of training that I think we’ve been able to evidence in that.
“Probably proudest on that first, rather than the accumulation of scores. But we’ll take wins when they’re on offer, and scores when they’re on offer, and hopefully we can keep doing that over the rest of this tour.”
He added: This is an ambitious team. I said the other day, we are after creating a training identity that we could grow into a playing identity.
Probably the proudest bit of that performance was the continuation, the consistency of it. You get a score and sometimes you see teams breathe out, but the ability to keep going…in tough conditions out there.
“It’s warm, it’s not this warm in Ireland, so all the work that’s gone in before coming here, and the training that we’ve done over the last week, has put the girls in a great place.
“What we needed to do was sort of back it up in the Test match arena, and I think the girls have done a great job. They can be really proud of that.”
There were bonus point triumphs for Ireland, Fiji and Spain across WXV3’s opening weekend. Colombia, who were beaten 67-13 by the Fijians, are the next opponents for Bemand’s table-topping side this coming Saturday (kick-off 5pm local time/2pm Irish time).
History will be made at The Sevens Stadium complex next weekend as the Ireland Women have never played South American opposition before in a 15s international match.
Colombia only made their Women’s Test debut in 2019 but have experience of playing in Dubai last year, when they beat Kazakhstan (18-10) and lost to Scotland (59-3) in the Rugby World Cup 2021’s Final Qualification tournament.
Las Tucanes had only played three Tests in 2023 ahead of WXV3. They got the better of Brazil in both legs of their regional WXV3 qualifier before slipping to a narrow 31-28 defeat to Hong Kong China earlier this month.
“You can only play each game on its merits,” acknowledged Bemand. “I actually know some of the Kazakhstan coaches. As a group, they’re a proud nation and they didn’t give up, but we can only play who is in front of us.
“We’re sort of just focusing on our own performance. There’s bits to tidy up still, plenty to work on. We’ll enjoy the win but we’re going to be pretty confident that we can grow it further.
“Under a bit more duress, you’re going to need to be a bit more consistent, you need to be a bit smarter with the ball, which area, a bit smarter when to release the ball to an edge or essentially where you play your rugby.
“I think the stuff we’re doing in training is ticking on nicely, which will hopefully keep growing our game regardless of who we play on weekends.”
It was a personal highlight of Bemand’s first game in charge to be able to introduce new caps Corri, Collis and 18-year-old hooker Delaney off the bench. The trio’s diligent set-piece work culminated in Delaney crossing for a power-packed maul try late on.
“Seeing people get their first caps is massive, and seeing people get the little bits of success on first caps – scoring tries for Sarah, Eimear’s dominance of the lineout, and calling a lineout on your first cap is a big thing.
“Megan coming on and showing some dominance in the scrum is brilliant. These girls have hopefully got an opportunity to go and kick on, but it’s great to get their first cap,” he added.