Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams.
Work to do

McWilliams accepts Ireland have 'got to get better' ahead of crucial Italy clash

Next Sunday’s game at Musgrave Park looks like Ireland’s best chance of picking up a win in the Women’s Six Nations.

WITH TWO DEFEATS from their opening two TikTok Women’s Six Nations fixtures, Ireland now turn their attentions to a massive home game against Italy in Cork on Sunday.

For Greg McWilliams’ team, the immediate challenge is fixing a litany of issues across their game with only a short window in which to do so.

In Toulouse on Saturday, Ireland were utterly outclassed and overpowered as the home side romped to a 40-5 win. Ireland were always going to find it tough in France, but their performance was nowhere near the standard they are striving for. 

Their handling was loose, the lineout and scum both faltered badly in the face of French pressure and their decision making continually let them down, whether it be letting high balls bounce or trying to run the ball from deep in the second half, an ambitious approach which saw Ireland cough up numerous possessions and leak more points. Across a difficult 80 minutes at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, Ireland made 27 handling errors, gave away 12 penalties and won just 50% of their own throws at the lineout. 

The sight of Linda Djougang moving across the scrum as she put in an 80 minute shift in the front row for the second week running suggests there are also concerns around squad depth.

The Irish players and coaches haven’t shied away from the fact that there is clearly much work to do, but Ireland have only limited time together between matchdays.

linda-djougang Dave Winter / INPHO Linda Djougang has played every minute of Ireland's opening two Six Nations fixtures. Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

Having flown back from the south of France yesterday afternoon, the group won’t reconvene at the IRFU’s high performance centre until Thursday ahead of Sunday’s crucial clash with Italy, who are also coming into the game off the back of heavy defeat to England, losing 74-0 in Parma.

Head coach McWilliams has a big job on his hands, but also feels there have been some encouraging signs across those opening two defeats.

“Right now, I think that their work defensively has been really good, in both games,” McWilliams said.

“We’re seeing a lot of double tackles, we’re seeing good organisation, we’re seeing hunger. There’s good impact tackles being made.

I think our set-piece is something that we’re going to have to do a lot of work on. Post-Six Nations, we’re going to have to find a way of doing a lot of front five stuff, because we just need to rep it. You can’t win the game of rugby without a set-piece, and we’re playing against one of the best sides on the world in France.

“But again, I’m really impressed with their improvement around the contact.

“I think if you watch the video back and look at how we controlled the breakdown and our ball, particularly in the second half, pretty impressed with it. It’s something I was really happy with, and it’s like everything else – I mean, we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to own that performance as well. You don’t want to be somebody who is happy with a 40-5 defeat, but there is so much out of that that we can take forward.”

While McWilliams is keen to point to the positives, they have only been there in flashes. Ireland played some excellent attacking rugby before fading against Wales, and while Eve Higgins’ try against France was the product of a wonderful team move, it was about the only shot they fired.

aoibheann-reilly Bryan Keane / INPHO Ireland scrum-half Aoibheann Reilly during the France game. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Against Italy they will hope to see more of the ball, and make better use of it. Italy are closer to Ireland’s level but have also made a poor start to the championship, managing to stretch France at times on the opening weekend before shipping 12 tries to England yesterday.

Yet France and England simply operate on a different level, selecting from squads packed with professionals. Those two heavy-hitters remain streets ahead of the chasing pack.

“I think it’s about where I felt it was,” McWilliams said of the gap between his team and France. 

“I felt that we could have let that game get away from us, and the fact that we didn’t is something that I’m really proud of, because once you have that workrate and ability to stay in the fight, you can work with that and you can work forward.

“So even though the gap is probably where I felt it was, there were moments there where I was like, ‘Hang on a second, this is going to be bloody good side when we stay together and can continue to improve.’

So even though the gap is big, I still feel we can close that gap. It’s just going to take a bit of time. I know people only have patience for so long and you want to win games, and we get that too. As players, they probably feel worse than anybody who is sitting down watching the game. They are absolutely devastated, because they want to win, but they can’t yet.”

With Ireland set to be without their Sevens players for the final round fixture against Scotland, this weekend looks like their best chance of picking up a win in this Six Nations campaign. 

“They’re (Italy) a very different proposition, a very tough side. They competed well against France last week, I thought they were unlucky that the scoreline wasn’t even closer, and they’re going to a World Cup, again, like all the teams we play against they are at a different end of their cycle.

“So they’re coming to Musgrave Park expecting to win that game, and we’ve got to front up and I think it’s really important that we get a win. 

“Saying it now, if we don’t win next week and we’re sitting it here next week, I’m going to be extremely disappointed. If that is the case, I’ll have to own it, but I want to win and I think the players want to win badly.”

With tough tests against England and Scotland still to come, the Italy game has the feel of a must-win fixture for an Ireland team who may have to stomach a couple more tough days before this championship is done.

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