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Greg McWilliams: 'At the end of the day, next year our goal has to be to get in the top three'

Ireland completed the current campaign with two wins from five.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

HAVING FALLEN JUST outside of it in the 2022 Championship, Ireland women’s head coach Greg McWilliams admits a top-three finish in next year’s Six Nations has to be a priority for his side.

After completing the current campaign with two wins from five, Ireland occupied fourth position in the final standings. While England and France were earmarked as the main contenders from a long way out, third spot was very much up for grabs with little to separate the remaining teams on paper.

The Irish did manage to beat Italy and Scotland – in contrasting style – in Cork and Belfast respectively, but an opening round defeat to Wales at the RDS immediately left them with a lot of ground to cover. With third place (or higher) in the 2023 Six Nations guaranteeing a place in the top-tier of the inaugural global women’s competition WXV, McWilliams is hopeful there is more to come from his group.

greg-mcwilliams-arrives Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“At the end of the day, next year our goal has to be to get in the top three. So we can get into the WXV, which brings more money, more TV. More eyes on the game, more development opportunities. While England is far and away the best team, in my opinion, in the world and you’ve France pretty close by, we need to be definitely the third-best team,” McWilliams acknowledged.

“A little bit more competitive with France, a little bit more competitive with England next year and you just keep drilling away. Keep trying to bring in new players, keep trying to get more time with your players. More camps, the ability to go away for a week here or there. All those moments and all those exposures are going to make us better.”

While finishing fourth in the Six Nations isn’t where Ireland want to be, it could have been much worse if it wasn’t for the heroics of Enya Breen in Saturday’s final round clash with Scotland at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. 14-8 behind moving into second half stoppage-time, Ireland were facing the prospect of claiming a wooden spoon for the first time in 18 years.

That was the cue for Breen to reverse the result of last year’s World Cup qualification showdown between the same teams in Parma.

Her seven-point salvo at the death secured a victory by the narrowest of margins and ensured the mood within the Irish camp was drastically different when New Zealand referee Maggie Cogger-Orr finally brought the action to a close.

“They dug it out and now they can get that belief that it can be done. Before the English game we started talking about the great story. 6 May 1954, Roger Bannister and the fact that for years no one could break the four-minute mile,” McWilliams said.

“He breaks the four-minute mile and in the next 12 months it’s done lots and lots of times. The fact that now they can do that, now they can grow on that. People coming into the squad know they’re coming into a squad that has that bite and that bottle, and that’s expected of them. I think it’s really important for momentum, I think if we lost that match it would be a very different situation.”

Although he previously spent close to five years in the set-up as assistant coach, this Championship represented McWilliams’ first foray into the Irish hot seat. The level of scrutiny that comes with the role took him by surprise but, with the help of his coaching staff, he has managed to come to terms with it.

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“When I signed up I didn’t expect any of this. I didn’t expect the pressure, I didn’t expect the spotlight, I didn’t expect the media. I thought I was coming back in here to 1,500 people, just cosying in and all of a sudden I’m like ‘Jesus, the old vultures are circling early!’ I’m like ‘I’ve got to get my s**t together. This is significant!” McWilliams added with a wry smile.

“I’m really good at not reading articles, really good at not listening to podcasts, but I know they’re there. F**k, like, we’re just doing the best we can. My staff have just been phenomenal, the work they put in. Niamh Briggs, I just hope when it’s time, hopefully in years to come, to move on that she’s ready to step in.

“Dave Gannon has been outstanding. Dave was captain of the Ireland U20s the year they got to the World Cup final and has over 100 professional games for Exeter and Connacht. As a line-out operator he’s an absolute geek. He’s a nightmare because all he wants to do is just talk about line-outs.

“They’re the right people to bring this group together. There’s so much work to do, but we’ve got a group of players who understand what needs to be done and they’re ready for it and that’s what is really encouraging.”

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