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'No one thought we would beat New Zealand three years ago - anything can happen'

Former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan is well-placed to share her expertise ahead of WRWC 2017.

FIONA COGHLAN IS no stranger to the World Cup scene.

She’s represented Ireland at three — captaining them at the memorable 2014 tournament, and of course to that historic win over the Black Ferns.

Fiona Coghlan celebrates after the game Fiona Coghlan after she captained Ireland to that historic win over New Zealand in 2014. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This year’s edition on home soil, will be very different for the former UL Bohemian’s front row however.

Coghlan hung up her boots after her side’s World Cup exit three years ago. Ireland were beaten by the eventual champions England in the semi-final, and finished fourth after losing the play-off to France. She retired on a losing note, but with immense pride.

In the run-up to this tournament, she’s kept on her toes. There’s been the trophy tour, events, interviews, writing. And that’s before a ball is even kicked. Then, there’ll be co-commentary on RTÉ among other media commitments, and she’ll surely find some time in between to lend some support to her former teammates.

Hours and hours of trawling the internet, watching old footage and getting to know how each of the sides play have been just some of the many things that have been checked off the Dubliner’s to-do list over the past few weeks and months.

Subsequently, she’s more than well-placed to offer her expertise on Ireland’s Pool C rivals Australia, Japan and France.

She notes that Australia have played just five Test matches since the last World Cup. Three of them have been against New Zealand, while the other two came against the 2014 finalists Canada and England — all of which they have lost.

That said, they’ve concentrated solely on Sevens and pocketed gold at Rio 2016 in doing so.

“Oz are so funny,” Coghlan tells The42. “They’ve totally focused on their Sevens and ultimately won an Olympic gold medal. They’ve put very little into their fifteens, obviously only five Tests.

“They have their National Championships every year but that’s run over a really short time-frame because Australia is so big — to get everyone together. I think they have 156 caps in their whole squad, which is really, really low.

Shannon Parry Australia's Shannon Parry. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“But in saying that, they do have some world class players; Sharni Williams and Shannon Parry, Mahalia Murphy – she’s uncapped — they’re coming in from the Sevens, and they are world class players.

“I think Sharni’s played one of the games, Shannon hasn’t played any of them. They originally started fifteens, went to Sevens, won an Olympic gold medal. I’m delighted they’re back in, but I just don’t know how much of an impact they’ll make.

“Australia would be very physical but they’ll really lack experience. I think Ireland are definitely the more experienced side, and if they play to their potential they should beat them.”

She smiles that Ireland are well accustomed to France with their annual Six Nations battles, but Japan are slightly more under the radar.

Tom Tierney’s side played two warm-up games against Japan behind closed doors at UCD this summer, which offered plenty of feedback — both on the opposition and the venue.

“I was so impressed with Japan when Ireland played them there a month ago,” Coghlan continues.

“I didn’t know what to expect. We played them in 2004, I think it was in Donnybrook and we beat them well. That was the last time I had seen them playing because they weren’t at the last couple of World Cups. I’d seen them at Asian Championships, but it’s hard to judge.

“They really put it up to Ireland. Their skill level has improved. I kind of described them as a pack of ants because they worked so hard for each other from start to finish.

“You can’t really underestimate any team. That’s the tough thing. It’s so ruthless to get through to the semi-final stages that you can’t underestimate anyone. Everyone is a threat. The likes of Hong Kong in Pool A wouldn’t really be a threat, a couple of those teams in Pool A.

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar takes for a selfie with Claire Malloy and the other captains An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar smiles for a selfie with Claire Molloy and the other captains. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“At your peril, you’d underestimate Australia or Japan, but in saying that, if we’re at our best we should beat them.”

Looking back to the last World Cup, and Ireland’s best-ever finish in France, Tierney’s side will be hoping to better that feat over the next few weeks.

Coghlan acknowledges the huge task ahead, but agrees with the old clichés. At the end of the day, it’s fifteen on fifteen. Anything can happen. Especially on home soil.

“I think it’s very tough. Even if we get out of our pool, you’re going to meet one of the top three — New Zealand, Canada or England — they are good.

“But then, if we get there, hopefully the home advantage. You get that lucky bounce, the bit of momentum goes your way, you never know.

“I don’t think we’re as good as those teams yet, but no one thought that we would beat New Zealand three years ago so anything can happen.”

Looking back through the years, and through her own experiences on the biggest stage in women’s rugby, the 36-year-old can’t help but feel slightly envious of her former teammates, and those coming through.

But then the excitement takes over. She’s witnessed the game change first-hand over the years, and here it is, on our door step, ready to take another step forward.

“The evolution of the game over the last ten years — my first World Cup was 2006 in Canada. Everything around it, whether it be status of the game, the media involved, the broadcasting, the number of fans, everything surrounding the game has improved exponentially.

“The last World Cup, I absolutely loved it, it was an amazing experience.

Fiona Coghlan leads out her team Coghlan leads her side out at the 2014 WRWC. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“This has to be another step forward. I think it will be. They’ve been working really hard over the last two years to put things in place, to make it bigger and better. Even the media interest around it from worldwide — it’s going to broadcast all around the world which is huge for the game.

“It’s not just a showcase of women’s rugby, it’s women’s sport, it’s rugby, it’s Ireland. It’s really exciting.

“The whole build up. I’ve seen pictures of teams coming in, being greeted. Everything is really positive around it, so here’s hoping to a great tournament really!”

And a final word — what is the main piece of advice she has for the Ireland players?

“It is tough in the sense that you’re there three weeks altogether. You need to take your time away. You get very little downtime in the sense of there’s a game every four days.

“You basically play, recover, take an afternoon off, then you’re back focusing on the next game. There’s very little downtime, but make sure you take your downtime and get away. Get out of the camp and then come back in as fresh as you can the next day.

“Just savour the experience. To be there — for some girls it’s their first, second, third and so on — but you don’t get very many opportunities to play at a World Cup, to play world class teams, to be involved.

“Absolutely enjoy the experience. Take the best out of everything. There will be tough days, but take the best out of everything that you’re doing.

“And be hugely proud and privileged that you’re getting the opportunity to play in a home World Cup.”

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