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6 women who will be key to a successful Irish title defence

Ireland’s captain and world player of the year nominee are among the most important components of the squad in this campaign.

ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER time of personnel turnover for Tom Tierney’s Ireland Women outfit.

The reigning Six Nations champions will begin the defence of their crown with seven uncapped players in the 30-strong squad. And while it’s difficult to overlook the quality the 15-a-side loses to the Sevens World Series commitments in Olympic year, the champions still boast a host of quality operators who will have their eyes on another Championship.

Jackie Shiels

Shiels had big shoes to fill this time last year as she stepped up from utility back to fill one of the midfield voids left by Lynne Cantwell and Grace Davitt. However, Cantwell’s Richmond team-mate picked up the baton with aplomb and partnered up with Jenny Murphy to excellent effect through the campaign.

Heather O'Brien, Kerri Ann Craddock, Jackie Shiels and Ashleigh Baxter Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Now however, Murphy will miss at least the opening two fixtures through Sevens commitments and Shiels is the experienced head in midfield.

Whether she is partnered by the uncapped Elise O’Byrne-White or Claire McLaughlin, or perhaps utility back Sene Naoupu, Shiels’ presence will be crucial to bedding in a new name in midfield, particularly when it comes to defence.

Sophie Spence

There is arguably nobody more important to Ireland’s game than Spence.

Sophie Spence Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

With the recognised game-breakers in the back-line called away to Sevens, the set-piece will be crucial for Ireland.

Not only is the tall, powerful lock a central component of the line-out, but in the loose Spence also adds to the arsenal the sort of devastating ball-carrying that earned her a World Player of the Year nomination.

Tierney will aim to get Spence on the ball in planned phases, ensuring she can make maximum metres in carries against mismatched tacklers rather than find herself taking back-foot ball one out from the ruck in emergency situations – though she’s excellent in that scenario too.

Larissa Muldoon

After guiding Ireland to a Grand Slam, Muldoon has had some battle for the number nine jersey with Tania Rosser. The Blackrock Kiwi’s extra experience helped her take the slot for the big games at the World Cup, but in the wet and wild setting of a Six Nations, Muldoon was back in the scrum-half role providing stability en route to a second title.

Larissa Muldoon kisses the cup Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Rosser has departed the international scene again and although Galwegians’ Mary Healy will no doubt step up to compete with Muldoon, her experience will be vital as the starting point of a new-look back-line.

Paula Fitzpatrick

With trips away to France and England – in Twickenham as a double-header with the male Six Nations game – Ireland will need all the phyicality they can muster. Thankfully, Toulouse flanker Fitzpatrick provides that in spades.

Paula Fitzpatrick is tackled by Adi Taviner and Melissa Clay Source: Craig Thomas/INPHO

An excellent ball carrier and all-round athlete, Fitzpatrick and her clubmate at number eight Heather O’Brien will provide a threat to opponents both with and without the ball.

Nora Stapleton

The Donegal woman has been an excellent playmaker and distributor for this Ireland team and the out-half will be required to pull the strings again to put Ireland in position to claim another crown.

Nora Stapleton before the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Stapleton did not start Ireland’s November loss to England or last week’s non-capped warm-up against Wales. However, Tierney will likely parachute her directly back into the side to continue the excellent partnership with Muldoon.

Niamh Briggs

There is no getting away from the importance of Briggs’ boot.

The Munster woman’s ability to remain composed under immense pressure has guided Ireland to victory so often in recent years that we couldn’t bear to think how the history of women’s rugby on this island might look without the current captain’s grace under pressure.

Niamh Briggs talks to her team before the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Close games, stubborn defence, conditions that discourage running rugby, Briggs’ accuracy off the tee gives Ireland a chance to negate those factors and just keep the scoreboard ticking over.

Ireland Women Six Nations fixtures

Saturday, February 6 - Ireland v Wales, Donnybrook Stadium, 1pm
Saturday, February 13 - France v Ireland, Stade Aimé Giral, Perpignan, 8pm Irish time
Saturday, February 27 - England v Ireland, Twickenham, 7.15pm
Sunday, March 13 - Ireland v Italy, Donnybrook Stadium, 1pm
Sunday, March 20 - Ireland v Scotland, Donnybrook Stadium, 1pm

- Originally published 12.00

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