Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Ireland take on Scotland in Belfast today.

Ireland look to end difficult Six Nations campaign on a positive note

The final round of the Women’s Six Nations sees Greg McWilliams’ side host Scotland in Belfast today.

FOR MORE REASONS than one, tonight’s clash between Ireland and Scotland in the Women’s Six Nations Championship at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast [KO 8pm, RTÉ2, BBC2 NI] will be a poignant occasion for Nikki Caughey.

In addition to the golden opportunity of playing in her home city, Caughey will also end an international hiatus that had stretched out to an astonishing 1,253 days. An international against England at Twickenham Stadium on 24 November, 2018 was the most recent appearance in an Irish jersey for a player who first made her debut away to France in the 2012 Six Nations.

Having lined out alongside Nicole Cronin at half-back for that autumn Test, she now takes her spot at number 10 after the Limerick woman suffered a broken rib in last Sunday’s 69-0 defeat to the English. Current head coach Greg McWilliams was part of Philip ‘Goose’ Doyle’s backroom set-up when Caughey – who has encountered her own injury woes in the past – made her Irish bow more than a decade ago.

“While losing Nicole isn’t ideal, I think we’ve someone coming in who will be very good at hopefully putting us into good positions around the park. I’m excited to see how she does,” McWilliams said of the Railway Union out-half.

“She had been involved with myself from 2012, when she was very young. It’s just funny now to see her on the other side of that across the training field. She has matured into somebody who has got knowledge around the game. I’ve really enjoyed reconnecting with her and I’m excited for her, and her family, to go out and represent Ireland this weekend.”

nikki-caughey Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Nikki Caughey. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

With Eimear Considine also ruled out for approximately 12 weeks with the leg injury she sustained against England, Sale Sharks’ Vicky Irwin has been drafted in as an indirect replacement for the Clare woman in the back-three. Last week’s debutant Molly Scuffil-McCabe moves to the left-wing, enabling Irwin to pick up her maiden international cap at full-back.

Having started her rugby journey at City of Armagh before subsequently switching to the Belfast-based Cooke, she will be eager to make a big impression in her home province. From McWilliams’ perspective, the inclusion of Scuffil-McCabe and Irwin in recent weeks is part of his continued efforts to widen the net for female rugby talent in Ireland.

We are trying to increase our player pool and some of it has been put upon us. Other parts because of injury. It is a really good opportunity for me as a coach and for Niamh Briggs to see, here’s another person now who comes into our thoughts as we move forward as a group.

“How does she do and how does she cope with the demands that we’re asking from her? That’s really good and it’s exciting for her. She deserves her shot.”

Given the injuries to Considine and Cronin came on top of five starting backs joining the Ireland Sevens squad ahead of their World Series tournament in Langford this weekend, McWilliams had reason to be relieved when Sene Naoupu’s red card from the English game was downgraded to yellow on review.

ian-madigan-speaks-to-the-players Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Ulster out-half Iain Madigan speaks to the Ireland squad during yesterday's Captain's Run in Belfast. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The one name in the match day 23 who has played international rugby for Ireland in Ravenhill – ranking games against Australia and Wales at the 2017 World Cup – McWilliams has kept faith with the 38-year-old at outside centre for the visit of the Scots.

“She does add a lot of value in her role. There’s players around her that are inexperienced, but have really good talent and really good ability. Having Leah Tarpey [in training with us] who is 18 years of age and you’ve Sene who is a little bit older than 18! It’s quite interesting to see the two of them.

“You really have a big age gap there, but Sene has her under her arm and talking to her about small things that a coach can’t teach a player. Sene is class. She’s a very good player and she still has a lot to offer.”

While McWilliams, assistant coach Niamh Briggs and a number of the players have spoken about last year’s World Cup qualifier defeat to Scotland being a motivating factor, ending an often difficult championship on a positive note is also very important for the future growth of this Irish group.

He acknowledged there is more pressure on his charges this week against a Scottish outfit that have suffered four straight reversals to date in the competition, but he has every confidence that Ireland’s players can rise to the occasion.

“I think it’s a great challenge where we play against a team who effectively put us out of the World Cup. There is definitely good pressure. If you care about something and you’re excited, it’s just great to be a part of that. You can sense that from the girls. They are excited to get out there this weekend and hopefully finish on a high,” McWilliams added.

IRELAND: Vicky Irwin; Aoife Doyle, Sene Naoupu, Enya Breen, Molly Scuffil-McCabe; Nikki Caughey, Kathryn Dane; Linda Djougang, Neve Jones, Christy Haney; Nichola Fryday, Sam Monaghan; Dorothy Wall, Edel McMahon, Hannah O’Connor.

Replacements: Emma Hooban, Chloe Pearse, Katie O’Dwyer, Aoife McDermott, Grace Moore, Maeve Og O’Leary, Ailsa Hughes, Michelle Claffey.

SCOTLAND: Chloe Rollie; Rhona Lloyd, Lisa Thomson, Helen Nelson, Shona Campbell; Sarah Law, Caity Mattinson; Molly Wright, Lana Skeldon, Christine Belisle; Emma Wassell, Sarah Bonar; Rachel Malcolm, Rachel McLachlan; Evie Gallagher.

ReplacementsJodie Rettie, Leah Bartlett, Katie Dougan, Louise McMillan, Eva Donaldson, Mairi McDonald, Emma Orr, Megan Gaffney. 

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