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Dublin: 8°C Thursday 22 October 2020
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'I think you've got to answer yes. It's a home World Cup, a once in a lifetime thing'

It has been a whirlwind week for Claire Molloy as she prepares to lead Ireland into a home World Cup.

Molloy takes over the captaincy duties from the injured Niamh Briggs.
Molloy takes over the captaincy duties from the injured Niamh Briggs.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

AS FAR AS captaincy inaugurations go, standing front and centre in a photoshoot, alongside the Taoiseach at Government Buildings, to officially launch a home World Cup isn’t a bad way to begin any tenure.

This is Claire Molloy’s third World Cup but already it has been an altogether different, and completely new experience for the 29-year-old — and the tournament doesn’t get underway until Wednesday.

It has been a whirlwind week for the experienced flanker, who received a call from Tom Tierney last Tuesday night asking would she take on the captaincy duties in the absence of the luckless Niamh Briggs, who was cruelly ruled out through injury.

“I think you’ve got to answer yes. It’s a home World Cup,” Molloy said, when asked whether she had to think about it.

“You don’t get these opportunities, this is a once in a lifetime thing. I’m one of the older players, we’re never going to have a World Cup at home again, and that’s for every player in the squad. We’ve got to make the most of the opportunities. It was a yes, along with a deep breath.”

Understandably so, too. On both counts.

It’s an absolute no-brainer to answer the captaincy call, the honour and distinction of leading your country out at a home World Cup almost impossible to ignore. As Molloy says herself, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

But there is so much more to simply pulling on the armband and standing at the front of the line in the tunnel. This is not just any role because this is not just any campaign, and Molloy is fully aware of that.

Claire Molloy Molloy speaking to the media in UCD yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Yesterday, her day was spent standing in front of cameras and jumping from pod to pod to speak to the scores of media in attendance at the pre-tournament press conference. It’s all part of the job, but even more so when you’re the captain of the host nation.

“It’s been very busy and it has been a new experience,” she admits.

By the time Wednesday arrives and all the talking and build-up makes way for rugby, it will be a welcome relief for not only Molloy but all of the players involved. This tournament has been years in the making, the sense of anticipation and excitement building as the opening game inches that bit closer.

Ireland will have to wait longer than most with their first Pool C outing, against Australia on Wednesday, scheduled to be the penultimate game of the opening matchday, kicking off under the Belfield Bowl lights at 7pm.

“I can’t lie to you, of course I’ve thought about it,” Molloy says, when asked if she’s let herself think about that moment she leads Ireland out to a crescendo of noise in front of a sell-out crowd and thousands of people all over the world.

“What I’ve got to do, I’ve got to do what I do on the pitch. That’s why I’m in that role, because of how I play on the pitch. That’s the most important thing.

“The best thing I could do for those girls is just play my game. Be a nuisance, be annoying on the pitch. Annoy the crap out of them, because that’s what I do on a pitch, and that’s how I’m going to lead. I just want to focus on getting the best performance out for the girls, and then driving on and on amongst everyone.

“But we have so many leaders on the pitch. It might be a title but I will be looking to Paula (Fitzpatrick), Maz (Marie Louise Reilly), Nora (Stapleton), Ailis Egan to help me out, to lead on the pitch.

“We can’t rely on one individual. It has got to be a team effort. The rationale is that I have experience. I have been to three World Cups. I will do my best in the role. But, I am one of 28 here and that is the main thing.”

Molloy’s words ring true, but there’s no way of downplaying the significance of Briggs’ unavailability. The fullback is the key cog in the wheel, the talismanic figure that Ireland have looked to on so many of the big occasions in the past, not least the famous win over New Zealand three years ago.

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Lindsay Peat, Cliodhna Moloney and Claire Molloy Ireland have had two sessions since entering camp on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Molloy played a monumental role that day, too, and certainly her experience and leadership qualities marked her out as the outstanding candidate to fill Briggs’ shoes and lead Ireland into battle.

“Of course, it’s going to be a blow to see one of your team-mates go down to injury after her long recovery. Having injuries is awful in sport, we’ve all suffered them,” the Galway native continued.

“Sport is cruel and it was a big emotional blow. It was very sad to see that to happen to Niamh but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to gather ourselves. We’ve got a strong leadership group to draw from, to get the performances. It’s just all about Australia now.”

The match Molloy and her team-mates have been building towards all summer and, going further back, the best part of three years. The biggest occasion of their careers, no doubt.

With just one team from each pool automatically advancing to the semi-finals, there is absolutely no margin for error in this tournament and a false start on the opening night would be a fatal blow to Ireland’s hopes and aspirations.

“It is absolutely massive,” the captain says. “This is the game we have been preparing for, been waiting so long to play. It is a huge game. We are not going to underestimate them [Australia] as they are here to spoil the party. They want to beat the home nation. They want to turn all the positives from the home crowd against us.

“We’ve got to be ready for that. Our girls are just focusing on nothing else beyond that. We’re just working on our systems, our structures. We’ve done all the body preparation. It is all about going in with the mental preparation and going in there with confidence and backing ourselves.

“There will be nerves for the first game. Every team knows that. There are going to be mistakes. It will be about how recover from them. It will be about how we play; how resilient we are and how we get that crowd behind us like we did against France this year in the Six Nations in Donnybrook. That’s what we want this stadium (Belfield Bowl) to do for us.”

Ireland will have the considerable advantage of that home support, with this game, and the other pool outings against Japan and France, sold out six weeks in advance but with it comes the pressure of being hosts. The backing of a nation but also the expectations of one.

Women's Rugby World Cup Captains Meet An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Molloy and the 11 other captains at the official launch at Government Buildings in Dublin on Sunday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Over 3,000 fans will be packed into the Belfield Bowl on Wednesday evening with a partisan and electric atmosphere expected under the lights, and Molloy knows all the onus is on her team. To set the tone, to crash into tackles, to take the game to Australia and ultimately come out the other side with the victory.

She says of the pressure and the favourites tag: “I think we can’t ignore it. It’s there, but I think we’ve got take it as a positive. I think we’ve got to drive on, and just remember it’s a game of rugby.

“We are the best 28 players in our country, and we’ve got to represent ourselves, and just do the simple things right. We don’t have to do anything that we haven’t done before on the pitch. We’ve just got to do our systems, our structures and play to our ability.

“It’s nothing different, and that’s what we’re driving home to the girls. This is a game of rugby that we’re just going to go out and win. Everything else out there is a bonus.”

Molloy speaks of producing a performance on Wednesday night but the reality of it is that the ends will justify the means and the result far outweighs everything else.

“Completely — it is about the result,” she agrees. “We don’t need to worry about how much. It just has to be a win. After 80 minutes, we have to come off as victors and then focus on the next game.

“We’ve got to go out there and leave everything on the pitch. If we play to our potential, I think the results will happen.

“How far will we go? If we keep getting that performance, that momentum and the drive from the home crowd, the sky is the limit. It is all about momentum.”

Only then will we talk about the second assignment and Japan. One step at a time.

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