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'We're not disrespecting the Six Nations': IRFU defend decision to withdraw three key players

Sene Naoupu, Alison Miller and Hannah Tyrrell are flying to Las Vegas with the sevens squad instead of playing against France on Sunday.

ANTHONY EDDY, THE IRFU’s director of women’s and sevens rugby, has explained his decision to withdraw three key players from Ireland’s Six Nations squad so that they can go on sevens duty.

pjimage (3) Naoupu, Miller and Tyrrell. Source: Inpho

Sene Naoupu, Alison Miller and Hannah Tyrrell will all miss Sunday’s championship clash with France at Donnybrook as they fly to Las Vegas with the sevens squad on the same day.

The decision, which Eddy insisted was made some time ago and falls in line with the women’s high performance programme and a strategic plan, has been met with disappointment among supporters, particularly when Tom Tierney’s 15s side still harbour hopes of a Grand Slam.

Furthermore, a World Cup on home soil is fast approaching and the lack of consistency in selection and performance for the 15s side over the last number of months has been concerning.

Speaking at a media briefing in Dublin this evening, for which he deserves some credit for doing, Eddy was adamant that the loss of Naoupu, Miller and Tyrrell — the first two being particularly key components of Tierney’s side — won’t weaken Ireland for Sunday’s game and stressed that it would give others opportunities, a word which was used repeatedly.

He also said that Tierney was in full agreement with the decision.

“It was always the plan, we knew a long time ago that there would be difficulty during this time to manage the squad,” he said.

“Tom and I sat down months ago around this and looked at sort of strategising and what we believed was best around development opportunities as well as having some success.

“It was quite obvious that Sene and Ali weren’t taken to Sydney [in January for the last sevens event]. We kept them here and they played two Six Nations games and following Sydney it was discussed again.

Anthony Eddy Anthony Eddy at this evening's media briefing. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“Hannah hadn’t been with the 15s but we wanted to continue to provide her with the opportunities so she went back and played last week [for the 15s] against Italy. She had that exposure and now she’s back into the sevens programme.

“It gives us another opportunity now to look at Kim Flood, who was in Sydney and has also played Test football for us before, and Louise Galvin who is another player we’re keen to look at.”

Responding to a claim that the IRFU’s decision to pull players from the squad halfway through a Six Nations campaign was disrespecting the tournament, Eddy was emphatic in his response.

“We’re certainly not disrespecting the tournament by no means,” he continued. “But what we are looking to try and do is provide other girls with opportunities to compete around positions for the World Cup and the Six Nations.

We have to go into the World Cup with 28 capable players and we absolutely used November [Tests] for that opportunity and are still continuing to look at opportunities to expose players at the highest level.

“The nature of the women’s game is that you don’t get too many opportunities, they’re not playing in a professional league so Test rugby is more or less it for them.”

From the outside looking in the decision appears to suggest Eddy and other management have prioritised the sevens format, with the aim of consolidating the team’s standing on the World Series, as well as going some way to earning the necessary points for qualification for the 2018 Sevens World Cup.

Sene Naoupu Naoupu has become a pivotal part of Ireland's plans. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

But, once again, Eddy was quick to deny any such assertions and maintained that the women’s programme as a whole was the union’s foremost priority.

“Sevens isn’t the priority, the women’s programme is the priority,” Eddy explained.

“As I said before, ideally we want 28 capable players around a World Cup and it’s about developing players and giving them the opportunity to be exposed at the highest level of the game.

Tom and I work closely together every day so we work through the selections together as well. This was part of the high performance plan some time ago and he was well aware of it. It’s part of his plan as well and he’s fine with it, fully understands, and he was part of the selection process himself. So there’s no problem there.

Tierney earlier announced his team for Sunday’s game with France — Ireland’s third of the championship — with the head coach once again shuffling his pack and making changes across the board from the win in Italy a fortnight ago.

Naoupu, Miller and Tyrrell were conspicuous by their absence and when Eddy was pressed on whether the trio will come back into contention for the final games against Wales and England, he said: “They’re missing one game, but we don’t know what’s going to happen the following week for Wales and England.”

The following dialogue ensued:

Journalist: Are they available for the final two games?
Eddy: Yes, everyone’s available.
Journalist: Why aren’t they playing this week?
Eddy: They aren’t available this week because the [sevens] team flies out Sunday. They were available for the Scotland and Italy games because we didn’t take them to Sydney.
Journalist: How do you decide who goes where?
Eddy: It’s on form and fitness but also based on what we feel is needed for the development of the squad.
Journalist: Does it not damage the 15s team?Eddy: No, I’d say it gives us a really good opportunity.

That word again.

But at which point is the line drawn and Eddy and Tierney are forced to decide that enough is enough and Ireland need to start winning Test matches with a settled side in anticipation of a World Cup?

“It may well happen in the next couple of weeks,” he replied. “The IRFU have put a lot of resources in the 15s programme, it’s now part of the high performance programme.

Tom Tierney during the warm up Women's 15s head coach Tom Tierney. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

“There’s numerous resources and investment around this squad. I’d like to think they’re going to be the best-prepared Ireland women’s team going into a World Cup because of the investment we’ve put behind them.

“It’s difficult to say what the best 23 is at any one stage and that all depends on who we’re playing and what the opposition is and what the conditions are, but we’ve built the squad now for whatever number of years and we’re getting to a point where we feel we have 28/30 players who are capable of being successful.”

According to Eddy, the three players involved were fully aware that they would split their time between the two formats and that the situation which has emerged this week has in no way dented morale among the 15s squad heading into a crucial Test match.

They’ve been spoken to about it for ages. They knew exactly what we were going to do during this time and for example Sene and Ali knew they would be called into sevens at some stage during the year. They’re part of the sevens squad.

“No I haven’t [heard of any discontent] and if that’s the case that’s probably disappointing because the fact is the resources that have been put behind the programme have been pretty good and they’re in a high performance programme now and you’d expect a high level of professionalism from those players.

“This was well-known from months ago from our point of view. We put a plan in place.”

Eddy added that there will be no further disruption to the squad’s preparation for the World Cup, which takes places in Belfast and Dublin in August, even though the sevens series continues with events in Japan, Canada and April over the next three months.

Eddy and Tierney are clearly doing a balancing act in having to manage players across two formats and squads but a staunch defence of the union’s decision leaves more questions than answers.

“I would like people to look at why these decisions have been made with a level head,” Eddy concluded.

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