Sarah Delaney burst onto the international scene by scoring a try during her Ireland debut against Kazakhstan in the opening round of the WXV3 tournament.
It has been an incredible few months for the 18-year-old Delaney, who helped Leinster to regain the Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship title – receiving her Leaving Cert results at the same time – before earning her first Ireland senior call-up.
The pride of Cill Dara RFC and her club coaches at Cill Dara and PortDara, she impressed new national head coach Scott Bemand as a hooker with ‘an enormous amount of potential’, and an exciting young player with ‘such a wise head on young shoulders’.
Sprung from the bench late on against Kazakhstan, she became the first player to win a Women’s Test cap following her involvement in Ireland Under-18 and Under-20 squads. She was part of the IRFU’s inaugural Under-20 campaign in Italy in July.
Going back to her initial selection for the WXV training squad, Delaney explained the emotional rollercoaster she went through when finding out she was part of Bemand’s plans for the tournament in Dubai.
“Unexpected is the best way to describe it but an absolute dream come true, like I couldn’t really wrap my head around it at all,” admitted the Kildare native.
“I even went and checked my emails and everything at the time to make sure they had the right person. I couldn’t believe at all that my name was there but it was an unbelievable feeling.”
Once the shock of getting called into the squad subsided, the focus for a determined Delaney was on doing her utmost in training to get her name on that first teamsheet.
Following in the footsteps of Ulster’s Sadhbh McGrath who was capped at 18 against Wales last March, the Leinster tyro was delighted to mark her debut with a try from a barnstorming lineout maul which started right on Kazakhstan’s 22-metre line.
“It was an unbelievable feeling, I definitely don’t score too many tries so it was class. The lineouts are something we really work hard on in training so it was a good lineout,” she said, speaking from the team hotel in Dubai.
If I was to be a bit picky I would have liked my throw (to Eimear Corri) to have been a little higher, but the maul was amazing. To be that distance, from the 22, and to get such a drive from it, it was massive from the girls.
“I was definitely just lucky to be at the end of it to dot it down afterwards. It was an amazing feeling and definitely overwhelming.”
What better way to wrap up the celebrations on the night than with Delaney’s first cap song – a lively rendition of Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’, an unexpected choice given it was released way back in 1990.
Being the baby of the group comes with its own set of responsibilities, and at the top of the list is being the custodian of the squad’s very own mascot, ‘Kevin the Carrot’.
Much like Keith Earls when he was minding ‘Lenny the Lion’ during the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, senior squad members would often kidnap the soft-toy mascot and leave it up to the group’s youngest player to find it before a potential fine was imposed.
Speaking about Kevin’s adventures in the desert heat, Sarah conceded: “I actually lost him twice before we even arrived in Dubai! The more senior girls have been sure to keep an eye on me when he does go missing, and there has been plenty of pictures of me completely unaware he’s gone.
“But, yeah, he’s been having the craic without me that’s for sure and is more often than not found down and around the pool or the gym. He’s kept me on the toes for sure.”
Overall it seems that Delaney, who is now attached to Blackrock College, has integrated with the Ireland squad very well. Senior players have also been quick to sing her praises, with out-half Nicole Fowley commenting that she is definitely one to watch for the future.
The talented teenager believes her involvement with the IRFU Women’s pathways, from underage level up to the high-performance setting, has accelerated her development and given her the ideal preparation for her first taste of the senior environment.
Along with McGrath and the newly-capped Clara Barrett, Delaney was part of the Ireland squad that competed in the inaugural Under-18 Women’s Six Nations Festival in 2022, which coincided with the launch of the IRFU Women’s National Talent Squad (WNTS) programme.
The maiden Ireland Under-20 Women’s squad this past summer included a number of Bemand’s Dubai group, namely Barrett, Katie Whelan, Leah Tarpey, Megan Collis, Niamh O’Dowd, Ruth Campbell and Delaney.
“It was really helpful that I had the experience at both 18s and 20s already under my belt, so it made the transition that little bit easier.
“But, yeah, it’s definitely been a privilege to be able to train and play with players I’ve watched and looked up to for years.”
The dawn of the WXV competition is a prime opportunity for young players to cut their teeth at this level. Like Bemand, Ireland’s final round opponents, Spain, have promoted their youth, beginning the tournament with three teenagers in their starting XV.
Sevens starlet Claudia Peña Hidalgo, who turns 19 tomorrow, bagged a brace of tries in Spain’s second round win over Fiji, which has set up a WXV3 title showdown with the girls in green this coming Saturday (kick-off 5pm local time/2pm Irish time – live on RugbyPass TV).
Commending World Rugby for providing players with this new global cross-pool competition, Delaney added: “It’s a huge opportunity for me and I think, like everyone else, we all just want more game-time so we can improve. So, the fact that were getting this platform is unbelievable.
“I think it’s really going to push us and allow us go from strength to strength, so we can put our best foot forward going into the Six Nations next year. It’s class to have.”