Edel McMahon believes Ireland have ticked all the boxes in terms of their preparation for tomorrow’s WXV title decider with Spain at Dubai’s The Sevens Stadium complex.
Molly Scuffil-McCabe and Dorothy Wall regain their starting places for the winner-takes-all clash (kick-off 5pm local time/2pm Irish time – live on RugbyPass TV), as head coach Scott Bemand selects the same team that started the tournament against Kazakhstan.
The Ireland Women (sponsored by Aon) have not played a match with silverware on the line since their 2017 Grand Slam showdown with England. It is a motivating factor for co-captain McMahon but not an all encompassing one.
“We’re really motivated to go after a title. It’s probably our first as an international group, being in this situation where a title is on the line. I think we’re relishing the opportunity,” she said.
“It’s a big motivator, but to be honest the last couple of weeks and the team and the environment and how we’re playing, the training ID that we want to stamp on has probably been more the focus. We’ve just been really enjoying the opportunity.”
Ireland come into the final round on 10 points, one clear of Spain who have also put together back-to-back bonus point wins. Fiji are temporarily at the top of the table on 11 points following their 118-point hammering of Kazakhstan in their final game.
Aiming to save their best for last, Bemand’s charges have the best lineout in WXV3 with an 87% success rate, and are the only team, along with Spain, yet to lose a scrum.
Ireland’s ruck speed is the fastest in the competition with an average of 2.9 seconds, and in open play, they have carried the most and had the most collisions, while topping the categories for line breaks, defenders beaten, and passes made.
Having prevented both Kazakhstan and Colombia from crossing their try-line and made twice as many dominant tackles (51) as the next best team, McMahon is determined that Ireland maintain those impressive defensive standards against the reigning Rugby Europe Women’s champions.
The Kilmihil native is one of seven surviving players who lined out in the 8-7 Rugby World Cup qualifier defeat to Spain in Parma just over two years ago. She played down the relevance of that game, particularly as both squads have undergone plenty of changes since then.
I don’t think we’ve really looked at the past, to be honest. The last two weeks have been a focus on us, this week is a focus on us.
“We’re very prepared in what we’ve done. We’ve done so much, I feel I’m acclimatised to the heat (here) now and I find the rooms absolutely cold!
“I think our preparation has put us in a good spot for Saturday to be competitive but also, like it is a level up from the games that we’ve been playing. I do feel quite confident that we’re ready for that challenge.”
Successive losses to Spain and Scotland in Parma in 2021 meant Ireland missed out on Rugby World Cup qualification. That encounter with Spain could have gone either way, with a last-minute penalty attempt by Enya Breen falling short.
This will the be the nations’ 11th Test meeting and first outside of Europe. They played each other quite regularly during an 11-year period from 1997 onwards, with Ireland winning in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008.
Coached by Juan González since April 2022, Spain retained their Rugby Europe crown earlier this year before enduring a difficult run of results, losing to the USA (20-14), South Africa (35-20), Japan (27-19), Italy (23-0), and Scotland (36-5).
When you consider that Ireland had similar Six Nations reversals against Italy (24-7) and Scotland (36-10), this has the makings of a closely-fought encounter, especially if las Leonas can continue to win the highest percentage of rucks in WXV3 (98.5%) and the most mauls (16).
“Absolutely, I don’t want to be in that position again (2021), but I feel like we’re quite well prepared this time around to play Spain,” insisted McMahon, who wins her 24th international cap in the back row.
“We’ve watched how Spain have grown in the last few games, but we’ve also seen how we’ve grown. I don’t think that we’re, for a second, taking for granted the opposition that’s been against us as well.
“So although those scorelines look fantastic, we’ve been quite in check with how we’ve actually been performing. This week in training has been another step up again internally. We’ve been really pushing each other with the awareness of what’s to come.”
Backing up the loose forwards tomorrow will be Aoife Wafer, who could win her long-awaited second cap off the bench. The 20-year-old flanker made her debut at home to Italy during the 2022 Six Nations, but a ruptured hamstring subsequently kept her out for almost a year.
Wafer turned in some strong performances during the recent Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship, helping Leinster to be crowned champions for the first time since 2019. McMahon is delighted that the Ballygarrett youngster is back in the green jersey.
“Aoife has been unbelievable the last two weeks anyway, regardless of selection, and brought a massive energy to training.
“Yesterday I told her, ‘go hard on us now because this is what we’re going for for the weekend’, and she didn’t take off the pedal when she was going for it.
“She goes 110%, she absolutely hits exactly like she does in games and she brings that level of intensity all of the time.”
With Wafer set to restart her fledgling international career, and five new caps introduced across the first two rounds, it has been an enjoyable and fruitful tour to begin Bemand’s coaching reign.
McMahon feels they have got the right approach to matters both on and off the pitch, adding: “I think away trips are always brilliant. It definitely brings a team more closer together. We get to see both sides of the player – the player on the pitch and the player off the pitch.
“I think that’s quite important for how we learn to communicate with each other when people are tired, or people need some time alone, or if people need to go off and do a group activity. I think this tournament has been a massive bonus for us in how we prepare.
“We were just saying yesterday, the experience even for those girls that got their first caps, this is a class experience of an environment, of winning performances, and just to understand what it’s like to be in full-time and how much professionalism that goes towards the whole thing.”