'Pinch me' moments, high praise for new coaching additions, and the Japan challenge

Being fully immersed in rugby is ‘the best feeling in the world,’ says Ireland international Hannah O’Connor.

A BRUISING SIX Nations game on a Saturday or Sunday, back to the classroom Monday morning.

That’s just the norm for Hannah O’Connor, who balances her teaching duties with life as an Ireland rugby international.

But with the IRFU recently announcing the first professional contracts for women’s 15s players, change could be on the way for O’Connor and co..

hannah-oconnor Hannah O'Connor meets Ireland fans after a Six Nations game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s brilliant,” she smiles from from the Irish team’s base in Shizuoka, Japan ahead of Saturday’s first Test against the hosts [KO 11am Irish time, live on TG4].

“It’s such a massive positive for women’s rugby in Ireland. It’s something we wanted for a long time, so to see it coming through is fantastic. And to know those discussions can be had when we arrive back after tour is brilliant.

“It will be hugely beneficial. We’re getting a bit of a snippet of that now, having been together just over a week. It’s so beneficial being together for a long period of time. You can go out on the pitch, have your two sessions and still come back together knowing you can replicate it the next day. It makes a massive difference in terms of recovery, nutrition, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. It can only go up from here.”

Just how enjoyable has it been, being fully immersed in rugby?

O’Connor doesn’t hesitate for a second.

“It’s the best feeling in the world. I love my summer rugby because as a teacher I get the abuse for having two months off! It’s the best feeling, you can train day in and day out as a high-performance athlete, and that’s where we want to be and what we want to be doing.

“To be able to do it in that environment, in Japan, is definitely a ‘pinch me’ moment, as a lot of us had on the plane over. We couldn’t believe we were actually going to Japan to represent our country. It’s fantastic.”

Greg McWilliams’ new-look squad have bet the jet lag and settled in well, with a couple of gruelling training sessions under their belt in the brutal conditions. The heat and humidity is like nothing they’ve ever experienced before, O’Connor stresses, with reports of 42 degrees and 80% humidity.

“At home you might get the odd day where you complain that it’s a bit too sunny,” she laughs, “but you at least have the air where you can feel like you can fill up your lungs.

“Just relentless. We were practicing scrums at one stage on an astro pitch, the heat off it was phenomenal. It was one of those moments when we were looking at each other saying, ‘This is crazy!’, but it’s class.”

john-mckee McKee on the training pitch with Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

From top-notch training facilities and the cultural experiences, O’Dwyer is taking it all in.

But she knows better than anyone that they’re there to do a job.

She’s enjoying working with new coaching additions John McKee and Denis Fogarty, a renowned pair who have bolstered McWilliams’ ticket.

“It’s brilliant, to have someone of John’s expertise come in, he’s added so much quality to what we’re doing in the forwards, building on what we started in the Six Nations,” she notes, when asked specifically about the former.

“He comes from such a quality background having worked with Fiji, but his knowledge of the game and the way he sees things, he’s a very cool character. He’s a much-loved member of the squad already. He has such experience across the men’s game, and what he sees in his analysis is filtering down to us and the way we’re looking at things.

“Denis Fogarty is in there adding experience at the scrums, and the two complement each other brilliantly. The girls are buzzing with the enthusiasm with what they both bring to it.”

“Analysing every game and going back to the Six Nations there were pros and cons to what we did at the line-out and scrum,” she adds. “We’re keen to kick on in that area.

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“Denis and John have been great. Denis is incredibly passionate about his scrums. You can’t but see the enthusiasm rub off on the girls. We’re keen to kick on and use this tour as a building block, and see those improvement at the set-piece continue to develop in the right direction.”

Likewise for the team in general, and on a personal level, with goals on both fronts laid out in a team meeting at the start of the tour.

“For me, you’re never sure of your place in the squad, nevermind on a matchday pitch,” 32-year-old O’Connor concedes.

“You just hope you get the chance, you hope if there is a next time to step on the pitch, you leave the jersey in a better place. It’s only yours to borrow. I thoroughly enjoyed the Six Nations campaign and getting a few starts under my belt. On a personal level, I’m hoping to be able to kick on from that and start a game as well.

hannah-oconnor O'Connor in training. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“On a team level, with the style of rugby we’re playing we’re hoping to gel. Being immersed in this environment together is really helping us gel, and being able to hit the ground running every day and kick on and see the developments. We’re hoping to see that cohesiveness come from that extended period of time together.”

All eyes on the first Test against the Sakura Fifteen at the Ecopa Stadium, Shizuoka on Saturday, so, before they lock horns once again seven days later in Tokyo.

The sides last met in the RDS in November 2021 when the hosts won 15-12. Japan are currently ranked 12th in the world and preparing for the Rugby World Cup, while Ireland are seventh, though miss out on October’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

“We know what we’re up against, we’re coming to their back garden to play them,” O’Connor concludes. “They’re a very good team, very efficient at what they do. We know that any errors on our part will be capitalised by them.

“We know what they bring, they played South Africa twice in the last few weeks as well as Australia and Fiji, so we’ve had a good bit of game footage to watch on them which has been great. Obviously we’ve been adding layers from our performance in the Six Nations.

“They know their detail well and are very accurate in what they do, so we’re under no illusions of the task at hand. It will be a fantastic challenge and one we’re immensely looking forward to.”

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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