From the bitter disappointment of a Six Nations whitewash to ‘creating winning habits’ as the inaugural WXV3 champions, it has certainly been a rollercoaster of a year for the Ireland Women’s team.
2023 began with renewed hope as Munster displayed their strength-in-depth to win a second successive Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial title, while the Combined Provinces XV followed up with a clean sweep of wins in the first ever Celtic Challenge tournament.
With uncapped players like Sadhbh McGrath, Niamh O’Dowd and Ella Roberts pushing through, there was a sense that Ireland, in Greg McWilliams’ second season in charge, could build on their fourth place finish from the 2022 Six Nations.
However, with Wales further down the development pathway and determined to show it, a 31-5 Cardiff defeat was a chastening start for the girls in green whose try came from captain Nichola Fryday during the final quarter.
Props McGrath and O’Dowd did both get on to win their first caps, the former becoming one of Irish Rugby’s youngest ever internationals having only turned 18 the previous August.
Coming up against players with recent Rugby World Cup experience, with Ireland the only Six Nations team to miss out on the New Zealand event, made it a baptism of fire for teenager McGrath and the squad’s other newcomers to Test rugby.
Kathryn Buggy, Emma Swords and Clara Nielson made their Ireland bows during the 53-3 home loss to France, with hooker Nielson having previously earned one cap for England.
Despite the result, McWilliams’ young charges were buoyed by the 5,214-strong crowd at Musgrave Park, and 5,309 turned out in Cork for their second home game against England, the eventual Grand Slam champions.
Having fallen 24-7 to Italy the previous week, Ireland drew encouragement from their defensive display against the Red Roses, which saw them keep their much-vaunted opponents scoreless for over half-an-hour of the second half before a late flurry from the visitors.
Second row Fryday, talismanic to the last in both word and deed, touched down against Scotland, making it 10-all, but Ireland could not avoid their first Wooden Spoon since 2004. Four unanswered tries consigned them to a 36-10 loss in Edinburgh.
Having lost former captains Ciara Griffin and Claire Molloy, Hannah Tyrrell, Katie Fitzhenry, Lindsay Peat, Anna Caplice, Michelle Claffey and Sene Naoupu all to retirement between 2021 and 2022, McWilliams’ efforts to rebuild the team were admirable and justifiably ambitious.
There is a strong cohort of talented youngsters coming through the ranks, but their lack of top-level experience, combined with the absence in the back-line of the Sevens players who were busy chasing Olympic qualification, meant that positive results were beyond them during the spring.
With the IRFU’s first professional contracts for Women’s 15s players introduced in November 2022, the hard work being done at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown, and across the Provincial Centre of Excellence hubs, will reap rewards on the pitch in time.
That success unfortunately did not come during McWilliams’ coaching tenure, with the Dubliner leaving his role by mutual consent following this year’s Six Nations.
There was further transition with Fryday deciding to retire from international rugby after 34 appearances and two Six Nations campaigns as captain. The IRFU’s Gillian McDarby praised her as ‘an excellent leader who left an indelible mark on the game in Ireland’.
In late July, Scott Bemand was revealed as Ireland’s new head coach on a three-year contract. The former England Women’s lead coach said that there is ‘a promising talent pool of players who will help create a new chapter for the game here’.
A year on from her own appointment as the IRFU Head of Women’s Performance & Pathways, McDarby spoke in September about a number of exciting developments that will strengthen the structures around Irish Women’s rugby and the senior team going forward.
The return of the Interprovincial Championship to an early season window, and Leinster’s subsequent victory, helped a number of players springboard into Bemand’s initial squad and play in the inaugural WXV3 tournament in Dubai in October.
Some of those were also part of the first ever Ireland Women’s Under-20 squad, which participated in training matches against Italy and Scotland in July. Another welcome addition to the calendar will be an Under-20 Women’s Six Nations Festival next summer.
The aforementioned Fitzhenry, the IRFU Women’s National Talent Squad and Talent Identification Manager, is working together with coaches Neill Alcorn, Larissa Muldoon and Matt Gill to ensure that players coming through the U-18 and U-20 pathways can fulfil their international potential.
On foot of recommendations from the IRFU’s ‘Women In Rugby’ report, eight Women’s National Talent Squad (WNTS) Pathway staff, including former Ireland internationals Muldoon and Niamh Briggs, were appointed this year, based at provincial hubs around the country.
New expertise also came on board with the hiring of Elaine Ryan as Ireland Women’s 15s Programme Manager, Sean Ryan as the High Performance Leadership & Culture lead, and Lisa Doyle, who moved from Leinster Rugby to become Communications Manager with the IRFU.
Senior coach John McKee, backs coach Briggs, and scrum coach Denis Fogarty provided continuity in the coaching group, supporting the incoming Bemand who rewarded provincial form by picking seven uncapped players in his WXV3 squad.
While knee injury victim Deirbhile Nic a Bháird and others were notable absentees, there was a youthful flavour to the selected touring party with seventeen of the players involved aged between 18 and 23.
Fifteen of them began the tournament with seven caps or less, and five went on to make their international debuts across the first two rounds – Eimear Corri, Megan Collis, Sarah Delaney, who only turned 19 earlier this month, Fiona Tuite and Clara Barrett.
Leading from the front were the team’s newly-announced co-captains, Edel McMahon and Sam Monaghan, two of the squad’s most experienced campaigners who previously played together at Wasps. They both described their joint-leadership role as ‘an honour’.
Bemand had experience from his time with England Women of trying to get the balance right in terms of fulfilling the needs of the national 15s and Sevens programmes, so the sight of Eve Higgins and Béibhinn Parsons playing again for the 15s team was a significant boost.
Commenting at the time about the drive to get the best out of both programmes, he said: “The player pool is what we have got in Ireland and we are going to maximise it. It will be based on a strong relationship between the 15s and the Sevens programme.
“So, myself and ‘TJ’ (Ireland Women’s Sevens head coach Allan Temple-Jones) are very aligned and actually work very closely.
“People have spoken about what that would look like and that will be a really, really strong plan of where players spend their time, how they spend their time and how they develop. Already there is a lot of good work that has gone in, we are pretty excited to see where we can take it.”
Well accustomed to the Sevens Stadium complex in Dubai, Higgins and player-of-the-match Parsons starred with four tries each in a record 109-0 win over Kazakhstan. It was Ireland’s biggest ever score and try haul (17) in a 15s Test match, male or female.
Teenage hooker Delaney, one of three players to win their first caps during the second half, scored the penultimate try against the Nomads. More of the same followed in the second round against Colombia, who provided a stiffer test but lost out 64-3.
That set up a winner-takes-all clash with Spain, who were ranked 12th in the world at the time, just two places behind Ireland. Bemand’s side endured a difficult first half, losing both McMahon and influential prop Linda Djougang to yellow cards.
However, despite trailing 13-3 at the break, Ireland’s powerful pack gradually got on top and forced a series of penalties. Their trusty lineout maul did the damage for tries from Grace Moore (60 minutes) and Neve Jones (72), edging their way to a 15-13 win.
It was the Ireland Women’s first international silverware since the 2015 Six Nations success, when Briggs was captain, as they made it three wins out of three in the desert heat.
For the current crop of players, the hope is that lifting the WXV3 trophy is the first step towards improved Six Nations results and qualification for the next Rugby World Cup. The first ‘controllable’ for the latter is a top three finish in the 2024 Championship.
Looking forward to the tougher challenges that await in the Guinness Women’s Six Nations, which begins against France in Le Mans on Saturday, March 23, Bemand said: “This is a team that we wanted to learn how to win again. The challenge that we got (against Spain) was perfect.
“The girls have fronted up. 10-0 down, yellow cards, kind of things stacked against (you). The half-time dressing room I thought was outstanding, and the finishers came on and brought impact. So as a group, there’s an awful lot to learn from that, but in a positive sense.”
He added: “The WXV3 tournament was all about bringing a group together, changing a mindset and trying to create something to go after. So there will be bits of the game that we can add layers to, how we test those skills under pressure and a variety of pressure will probably be the next thing.
“We go into the Six Nations, we know we’ve got some big challenges, we know different teams are investing in their programmes.
“They’re going to come with slightly different challenges of their own, but the biggest one for me is probably being able to grind our way through a bit of adversity for this one and creating winning habits.”
The calendar year closes out for Irish Women’s rugby with the start of the expanded, six-team Celtic Challenge tomorrow. Two Irish sides, the Clovers and the Wolfhounds, will clash at Musgrave Park in a mouth-watering opener (kick-off 4pm – live on RugbyPass TV).
Denis Fogarty is head coach of the Clovers (Munster and Connacht), and Neill Alcorn takes charge of the Wolfhounds (Ulster and Leinster). The competition spans an 11-week period up to Sunday, March 3, including play-offs.
Musgrave Park will also host Ireland’s Six Nations match against Wales on Saturday, April 13, with the team also playing at the RDS (v Italy, Sunday, March 31), and Kingspan Stadium (v Scotland, Saturday, April 27). Tickets are available to buy here from Ticketmaster.ie.