It will be a day to remember for Ireland. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
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'It means a lot to play at a ground with such history' - New home, new era for Ireland

Tom Tierney’s team open their Six Nations title defence at Donnybrook this afternoon.

THERE HAVE BEEN many memorable occasions along the way but when Niamh Briggs leads her team out to face Wales this afternoon, there will be an added significance to the day.

Milltown House in Ashbourne served Ireland so well, providing the stage for the seminal defeat of England in 2013 and countless victories which underpinned two Six Nations titles.

But today’s campaign opener [KO 1pm] marks the start of a new era and one which has been heralded by the switch to Donnybrook, the original home of Leinster Rugby and a venue which has staged European and International fixtures aplenty.

Ashbourne had become the spiritual home of women’s rugby but it was time for change after Ireland had outgrown the venue – but they now have a stage reflective of their growing stature.

“It was time to move but we had five fantastic years in Ashbourne,” Nora Stapleton tells The42. “The support was always amazing but I guess when you look at the amount of people we could get at a more accessible stadium in Dublin with the footfall it brings.

“At the end of the day it’s about getting more people to come to our games and no matter how good the game is, people might be put off by facilities. It may have been difficult to see at times in Ashbourne depending on where you were.

Nora Stapleton Stapleton at yesterday's captain's run. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“But Donnybrook is a fantastic stadium and it will be a real honour to play there. It means a lot to get the chance to play at a ground with such history.”

Ireland have enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity, firstly under Philip Doyle and now his successor Tierney, and the on-pitch success has led to a groundswell of support.

It was all sparked by that indelible 25-0 win over England three years ago and from there the girls in green have gone onto win two Six Nations crowns.

And the Irish Football Rugby Union have weighed in behind the cause, putting resources into the women’s set-up to ensure the last three years of success is built upon.

“It is a confidence boost,” Stapleton says of the IRFU’s backing. “I’m sure it costs more for us to play in Donnybrook but it shows they’re serious about us and the women’s game.

“There has been a big social media campaign and the scheduling means none of our games are clashing with the men or U20s. That’s important as it allows as many people come to or watch the game.

“That then translates into young girls getting into the sport and wanting to pick a ball up for the first time. The grand slams put you into the public eye and if you want that you need to be successful.”

As a women’s and girl’s development executive for the IRFU, Stapleton is in a good position to comment on the impact the team have made on the sport at grass-roots level.

The Ireland Women's team The squad at Donnybrook. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The numbers are all heading in the right direction and a move to Donnybrook, where the game will be live streamed online, will only be beneficial in spreading the gospel.

32-year-old Stapleton will start from the bench with 10 potential Six Nations debutants in Tierney’s panel. The head coach has placed faith in the rookies and one of the players who has seen it and done it all before acknowledges the size of the task they face.

“We’re under absolutely no illusions of how hard it’s going to be,” Stapleton says of the Welsh challenge. “Every team in this competition provides a different challenge and we ourselves are trying to improve every time we go out and play.

“As defending champions we do go into the game with confidence but we know we’ll need to up our game – but we’ll do what we always do and go out and enjoy it.”

When Briggs, Stapleton and Sophie Spence, all stalwarts of this team, lead the troops out a little before 1pm today, they will have come a long way since the days of playing in front of a couple of hundred people.

“You walk out and the crowd cover you up, there’s no better feeling. The noise will be incredible and we just honestly cannot wait.”

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