Sitting in the Ireland team hotel in a sun-soaked Dubai, out-half Nicole Fowley admitted that she felt an international call-up was not on the cards for her this year.
Saturday’s WXV3 second round clash between Ireland and Colombia kicks off at 5pm local time/2pm Irish time. Every match is being streamed live from Dubai for free on RugbyPass TV – click here to register.
Fowley made her Test rugby return last Friday, landing six conversions during an impressive second half cameo against Kazakhstan. It was her first appearance at this level since the 2019 Six Nations, rewarding her hard work and determination to get back in the Ireland reckoning.
The Sligo native, skilful at breaking down defences with her distribution out of hand or with the boot, captained Connacht during the recent Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship.
She was the player-of-the-match in their standout win over Leinster, the eventual champions, and also helped them to a third round victory over Ulster, catching the eye of newly-arrived Ireland head coach Scott Bemand.
“I was almost at a stage that I thought my Ireland days were probably over,” she revealed. “I was really just focusing on club and province at the time and doing the best I could for them in terms of being a captain, a leader and performing to my best ability.
“I didn’t really put pressure on myself to think, ‘Oh God, should I push myself for a spot with Ireland’, like I honestly didn’t.
“My main focus was to be the best player I could be for Connacht, and I guess in doing that maybe it took the pressure off in terms of having to perform well. In the end it worked out.”
Fowley first came to prominence with Galwegians and Connacht in 2016, winning her first three international caps as a centre during the late Tom Tierney’s coaching tenure. It was a case of sink or swim against three top-ranked teams, England, Canada and New Zealand.
Players of the calibre of Nora Stapleton, current backs coach Niamh Briggs, Sene Taiti-Fanene, Jenny Murphy and Katie Fitzhenry dominated the 10-12-13 axis for the next couple of years, until Fowley earned a recall for the 2019 Six Nations.
She was ever-present during that year’s Championship, emerging as the starting out-half under then-head coach Adam Griggs. However, having not donned the green jersey in over four years, the 30-year-old said that her latest call-up definitely came as a surprise.
“I suppose for me at the time I knew the WXV was happening, but at the same time I was a little shocked when I got the call-up.
“Obviously I was delighted to be given the opportunity to put on the green jersey again as it is something I will always cherish, but yes, it definitely came as a bit of a surprise.”
The owner of a cultured right boot, Fowley marked her ninth Ireland cap with a series of well-struck conversions, contributing a dozen points to the record-breaking 109-0 victory over Kazakhstan.
Giving the Connacht skipper the chance to start this time around against las Tucanes tomorrow, Bemand is thankful to have two quality operators in Fowley and Dannah O’Brien, who also kicked 12 points in the WXV3 opener.
“We’ve got some good out-halves with us here. I’m really impressed with Dannah and really impressed with Nicole,” acknowledged the former Harlequins, Leicester Tigers and Bath scrum half.
“Competition is an intrinsic part of what we are trying to become. A lot of our training, we compete. Hopefully that identity transfers to the pitch and you need that inter-positional competition.
“It drives people to higher levels, so really happy with how Dannah is going and really happy with how she was supported last week by Nicole and this week we simply switch.
“I was really proud of them. (Goal-kicking) doesn’t often get enough credence. I see the girls working hard at it. Actually we gave them a nod in the team review that they’ve elevated a very, very good performance to an outstanding performance.
“Going into the Six Nations we are going to need more than one out-half. Going into a successful World Cup we need a couple of girls who can stand in and do a great job, whoever gets picked. I’m really happy with both their form. This week it is Nicole’s chance to shine.”
Working under a brand new coaching ticket, which includes her former international team-mates Briggs, Fowley has enjoyed the environment Bemand is developing and the positive steps the coaches are taking in trying to turn the team’s fortunes around.
“They’ve been great. I really like how they have come in and how they are approaching this competition. I’ve really enjoyed their coaching styles. Working under Scott he’s brought in a really good vibe. It’s been a fresh start for everyone.
“And then Niamh, obviously I used to play with her way back when and now she’s coaching us and that’s great. So it has all been really positive.”
Fowley and Aoibheann Reilly make their first international start together in an all-Connacht half-back partnership, while the westerners are also represented by Méabh Deely and Béibhinn Parsons in the back-three. Fowley’s former club and provincial team-mate, Edel McMahon, is a co-captain up front.
The Galwegians play-maker says that the younger players definitely keep her on her toes. Their enthusiasm is certainly rubbing off on the older cohort as the competition for places intensifies coming towards the WXV3 finale and the 2024 Six Nations.
It’s been great, it’s been really refreshing. I’m one of the older crew now but it’s great to have some youth around the squad. It’s definitely bringing a bit of youth back into the body.
“It is so great to see the likes of Sarah (Delaney) come up through the pathway from Under-18s to Under-20s and now to senior. She’s been a great addition to the group.
“Eimear Corri is an absolute athlete and is definitely one to watch for the future. She’s an absolute superstar. Then Megan (Collis) is just so powerful and so skilful. They’re all bringing their own little super strength to the squad.
“They have all been phenomenal girls and they all have fitted in so well with the group. Also, when it comes down to it they’ve really stepped up and competed for their positions.”
Tour life seems to be suiting Fowley and company, but she is quick to add that training in the desert heat out there is no joke, especially when the mercury hits over 40 degrees regularly.
The IRFU medical and support staff have done their utmost in terms of their pre-tour research and the efforts they are putting in to keep the players and coaches cool under the harsh Dubai sun.
“Dubai has been very, very hot. We trained in 42 degree heat the other day. But in fairness to all the staff, they have all been around with water, wet towels, water spray. Honestly, anything you could want to cool you down.
“In fairness to the IRFU they had done their research. Before we left, we did heat chamber training where we did some conditioning in high heat. I think up around the high 30s or something, so that was really tough. But it definitely prepared us for what was to come once we arrived in Dubai.”
With an obvious ambition to remain in contention for a Six Nations spot come the spring, Fowley insists that she is taking each game as it comes. Her main focus for now is on Saturday’s encounter with Colombia, and then moving on to the final round showdown with Spain.
“Now that I’m back in, my hope is to stay in. Stay in the squad and keep competing and try and get that 10 spot. It is great to have the competition between myself and Dannah.
“The standards here are really high and I’m absolutely loving the training and the environment, so my hopes are to be involved in some way for the Six Nations, but first and foremost my main focus right now is this game on Saturday and the Spain one the following week.” she added.