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'A real family goes through major issues and you're there for each other'

Greg McWilliams and his Ireland squad are setting their sights on silverware after a turbulent time.

IT’S FAIR TO say that the Ireland women’s rugby team have been through a lot over the past few months.

Rock-bottom came on a dark day in Parma last September, as Scotland tore the World Cup qualification dream to shreds in the most dramatic fashion.

The postmortem began once the death knell rung, and it’s dragged out ever since; the aftermath played out in a very public sphere and the grieving process interrupted by reviews and reports as off-field matters dominated.

ireland-players-dejected-after-the-game Irish players dejected after the World Cup dream died in Parma. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

It’s been a long, hard winter. But as the famous Seamus Heaney line goes, ‘If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere’. Spring has sprung, and the next chapter begun with Greg McWilliams tasked with leading the on-field resurrection.

The new era officially gets underway in tomorrow’s Six Nations opener against Wales at the RDS [KO 4.45pm, live on Virgin Media One]. 

And while the past has been parked, it cannot be changed and it’s important that the mental position of the squad is discussed within the bubble.

“It is only natural,” McWilliams nods.

“There’s a word that’s bandied around sport: family or sisterhood or brotherhood… a real family goes through major issues and you’re there for each other, it’s not all bells and whistles.

“It’s not about being liked, it’s about being respected.

“I think with our group of players, like any family, you’ve got good days and bad days and it’s about how you react to that and how you come together.

“This group is stronger because of what happened previously. Not getting to the World Cup has made them aware of what they need to do to be better.

“That’s been good for them, I can see nothing but positivity and smart people here.

“We’re on a great journey. I sit back and watch the staff, Niamh Briggs, Rob Sweeney and Dave Gannon doing their thing – sitting back and watching it from afar is really nice. You’re seeing people who care, people I think who will do something special.

“Is it going to happen this weekend? I don’t know. Is it going to happen during the Six Nations? Hopefully we’ll see glimpses of it.

“We’re just trying to gain consistency and develop every time we have an opportunity to just learn the whole time, to enjoy it. That’s what’s important.”

McWilliams is the first to appreciate that his side are in a very different position to their counterparts.

While Saturday’s opponents, Wales, are eyeing the next World Cup, like so many others, Ireland are in a completely separate cycle as they look further down the road.

“First and foremost, we have to develop our pillars,” McWilliams outlines. “That’s what will stand to us as a team around your unstructured and structured play, around your defensive policies, around your transitions and your scoring zone actions.

“We have to invest in our process, we have to be very clear what that’s going to look like.

“Every Six Nations team we play this year are going to a Rugby World Cup, so they’re whole momentum and energy is going into that event.

“The Six Nations for them is getting their detail right, getting the same group of players and the cohesion amongst staff.

“But, my goal would be that we work really hard between now and the Rugby World Cup that when we stay together and move as a group past the World Cup and into next year’s Six Nations that you’ll see teams having major transitions with coaches leaving, players retiring and we’ll just keep working hard.

“Our goal is to close that gap, I want to be competing with England and France.

greg-mcwilliams Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“Look what the men do, look what the U20s do. The U20s won a Grand Slam, I mean against English players who play in the Premiership week in, week out — it’s doable because that’s what Irish people do and we’re no different.

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“It’s about the process, but the goal-set that we have will shift because we want to win. We want to win silverware because that is what the Irish people need.

“That’s what we’ll aim for and we’ll do our best… we mightn’t do it, but we’ll put everything into it.”

That’s the plan tomorrow, too, as a new-look squad look to give the Welsh a good rattle.

There’s a real air of excitement and anticipation around the team, with all reports coming out of the camp overwhelmingly positive.

It’s over to the players now; McWilliams having done all he can as he starts moulding “our own team” together, with a playing style that suits their DNA through this learning curve.

“I’m excited more than nervous, I know I will be nervous – not for myself or for the result, but because I want the players to be able to show how good they are,” he notes.

“That’s all I care about is if they can go out and put their best foot forward, show that what we’re doing in training is working — even if our line out timing is off and we’re seeing good technical speed on the ground or there’s a good throw, they’re things we can get tighter on.

“Around our attack and defensive shape, we’ve introduced a couple of key philosophies around what we do and you just hope they can go out and back themselves.

“I just get nervous about the players being able to express themselves and do well, it’s not for me or the win or the loss but these players deserve to go out and give everything they’ve got.

“If they do that, I think I’ll be really proud as a coach.”

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Emma Duffy

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