With the players ‘ramping it up internally’, head coach Scott Bemand believes his Ireland team are ready for the step up in class that Spain will provide in tomorrow’s WXV3 decider in Dubai.
Aoife Doyle, whose tour was cut short through injury, got a close-up view of the WXV3 trophy at the pre-tournament photocall, but Ireland’s co-captains, Edel McMahon and Sam Monaghan, could lift the silverware in celebration if the team get the job done in the desert heat.
They will be crowned the inaugural WXV3 champions if they avoid defeat against Spain, with a European win either way promoting a third European team to play in WXV2 next year.
Regional qualifiers in 2024 will decide the identity of those three European sides. Tomorrow’s final round match kicks off at 5pm local time/2pm Irish time and is live on RugbyPass TV.
A niggle unfortunately rules young prop Megan Collis out of the game, but it is full steam ahead for the girls in green who are aiming to close out the early part of the international season with victory over the reigning Rugby Europe champions and the world’s 12th-ranked team.
Following on from convincing defeats of Kazakhstan and Colombia, with 27 tries scored and none conceded, Bemand admitted: “It’s a much-needed challenge. You can only beat what’s in front of you and we’ve been talking about this since the beginning.
“It’s about our own identity so it actually gave us a bit of a chance to build, (to) get those on-pitch bonds. We’ve trained pretty hard so regardless of who we are playing against, we’ve managed to keep our foot down in training.
“Hold ourselves to standards that we believe we’ll need when these bigger challenges do come. I think we’re probably at the right time now that we relish a bit more challenge and coming with that extra pressure that a final can bring, we’re in a good place for it.”
It is not a ‘final’ in the conventional sense, but World Rugby will be pleased that WXV3’s round-robin format will come to an exciting conclusion as the trophy is fought for between these two European rivals.
From the opening two rounds, Ireland have enjoyed the most possession (59.8%) and territory (70.3%) in WXV3, while a third of their tries have come from counter attacks. Béibhinn Parsons is the tournament’s joint-top try scorer with six, a tally matched earlier today by Fijian winger Adita Milinia.
Parsons also crossed the whitewash when Ireland lost 8-7 to las Leonas in the 2021 Rugby World Cup qualifiers. Flanker Vico Gorrochategui Juste is a key player up front for Spain, winning 11 lineouts so far in Dubai and hitting the most attacking rucks of any player (42).
Bemand is more than satisfied with Ireland’s build-up to facing more testing opponents, explaining: “We’ve been pretty consistent with how we’ve trained. The noticeable step up is how the girls are taking to what we’re asking of them in training and how they attack it.
We’ve had some great sessions this week. Girls that have missed out on selection are rightly disappointed, but have put their best foot forward still in training which is a real reflection of where the group is at.
“We’ve got some cracking youngsters coming through, some of them here have got capped and others haven’t. But this, the whole tour, is an important part of their development.
“The players ramping it up internally is probably the bit you would have noticed, rather than a significant shift in training input or anything like that.”
He was asked about some of those young players, particularly Méabh Deely and Sadhbh McGrath who showed their versatility against Colombia last week by switching positions to out-half and tighthead prop respectively.
Their adaptability could be a real asset for Ireland moving forward, with Ballinasloe native Deely, who started last Saturday’s match at full-back and scored a try, played the final quarter at half-back, kicking two conversions as well.
Buncrana-born teenager McGrath, normally a loosehead, gained some experience on the other side of the scrum as a second half replacement. The group have to be prepared for every scenario, especially as the level of opposition increases.
“In World Cups you’re going to need quality props that can play and specialise but who can play both sides too. Sadhbh has got so much potential as a player,” acknowledged the ex-England Women’s lead coach.
“Us getting an opportunity to test her in a Test environment, so in a game, so the stuff we’ve done in training we’ve now been able to transfer to the pitch.
“Méabh getting reps as 10 in training, so we’ve done that over the past six weeks. We’re now getting opportunities that she could have to step up in a game and do it.
“These are all experiences that when you get to the business end of competitions become really impactful or not impactful if you practise these scenarios.”
Bemand added: “We’re actually pretty well placed with what a plan might look like going over the next two years in terms of depth, and developing depth. But also people that can step in in matchday squads should yellow cards, red cards or injuries occur.
“We’re actually a reasonable distance down the path of covering off certain scenarios which feeds confidence. If you’re confident going into things, you get a pretty resilient group.”
Assessing the mood in camp in this pivotal last week, he feels that ‘people are peaking at the right time’. Keep training varied as the tour comes to its climax, the coaches have been ‘able to sprinkle little bits of energy into the group’ and the players have ‘responded really well’.
One player who has gone about her business in an impressive way is 20-year-old centre Aoife Dalton. This will be her 10th successive start since the Japan tour in 2022, and her third of the tournament alongside Sevens star Eve Higgins.
The Clara youngster already has three tries to her name, has played in both the inside and outside centre positions, and has featured in four different centre partnerships, alongside Enya Breen, Vicky Irwin, Anna McGann, and most recently Higgins.
“Aoife is a cracking player. She’s played 12 and 13, and particularly where we are in the cycle and the levels of competition that are coming up, it’s pretty important to develop people with breadth,” noted Bemand.
“So, getting her some exposure at 12 and 13 actually adds to the individual. How we choose to use them in what plays we deploy, things like that, well that’s up to us. But in terms of giving them some experience of aspects of both, I think that helps further people’s development.
“She’s actually become a really, really important staple part of the team. Really quiet to talk to but she has a firm idea of what she wants and what’s she after and I think she’s performing brilliantly.”
Dalton’s Leinster colleague, Aoife Wafer, is also 20 and another player with a bright future ahead of her. Following her recovery from a long-term hamstring injury, she has earned a recall to Ireland’s bench a full 18 months on from winning her first cap at home to Italy.
Bemand has every confidence in the returning Wafer, adding: “People have a viewpoint that your 15 is your 15 and then you bring your bench on. It’s massively important to have impact coming onto the pitch later in the game.
“Aoife, in terms of her journey coming back to fitness, she’s put in a fair bit of graft to get back to this point. She’s going to come on the pitch on the weekend and she’s going to elevate any performance that she comes into.
“Really excited to see what she can do. She’s been training out of her skin, and just excited to see what she can do in a Test now.”