Ireland thank the Japanese fans in Tokyo last weekend. Akito Iwamoto/INPHO

Historic tour a huge positive for Ireland but the hard work is still ahead

Greg McWilliams gave debuts to nine players during the two Tests in Japan.

THERE WERE MANY moments over the last few weeks when it hit Ireland’s players and coaches just what they were part of.

The sheer humidity of Shizuoka for the first Test. The bullet trains. The temples. The Tokyo skyline. Japan can be intoxicating and breathtaking, and this trip is something that will rank as a career highlight for virtually everyone involved.

Even if last weekend’s second Test against Japan was a big disappointment, Nichola Fryday and her team-mates are history-makers. That doesn’t give them a free pass to lose, of course, but even the defeat will prove valuable if Ireland learn the right lessons.

The first-ever tour for Ireland Women in a place as exciting as Japan – not that long ago, it was unimaginable. There were many involved in the women’s game who just couldn’t have seen it happening as soon as 2022.

The very fact that it went ahead is the biggest positive of all, but there are more. 

With Ireland’s 7s internationals absent due to their preparations for the World Cup 7s in two weekends’ time, head Greg McWilliams was able to add a few rungs to his depth chart in recent weeks. The sprinkling of youth added energy to this tour, with nine players making their Ireland debuts across the two games.

18-year-old Dannah O’Brien showed great promise with two starts in the number 10 shirt, as 19-year-old centre Aoife Dalton, 21-year-old fullback Méabh Deely, and 22-year-old wing Natasja Behan also won their first two caps in the starting XV.

Understandably, they made errors in stepping up to Test level but there was more than enough to suggest that they have big futures with Ireland.

ireland-celebrates-the-first-try-which-was-scored-by-natasja-behan Ireland celebrate Natasja Behan's try in the second Test. Akito Iwamoto / INPHO Akito Iwamoto / INPHO / INPHO

Out-half has been a problem position pretty much since Nora Stapleton’s retirement in 2017, with a raft of players having short stints in the number 10 jersey, but O’Brien clearly has the skills and athleticism to make it her own for the long-term. 

18-year-old centre Leah Tarpey got two caps off the Irish bench and looked at ease, while 19-year-old wing Emma Tilley and 20-year-old lock Taryn Schutzler also got their first tastes of Test rugby. 

Versatile forward Jess Keating and 28-year-old Jo Brown, formerly an England international, were the other two new faces and will hope to have done enough to stay in the mix under McWilliams moving forward.

There were other players whose standing has improved notably on this tour, including dynamic back row Grace Moore. She came off the bench in the first Test to make a good impact and was athletic, combative, and clever in the second Test defeat. 

Meanwhile, Nichola Fryday continued her development as Ireland captain, a role that remains relatively new to her. The 27-year-old is clearly becoming more confident with each Test and this tour will have been a game-changing experience for her.

Ireland’s performance in the first Test was excellent as they overcame a rocky start to blast past the hosts in a nine-try showing. Japan were undoubtedly poor that day but the Irish attack showed a creative, clinical edge to help them pull well clear.

But Ireland couldn’t back it up. McWilliams’ concern was obvious last week as he mentioned how draining the first Test had been for Ireland in the hot, humid conditions. Despite a training week that was light, Ireland looked lethargic in Tokyo in the second. 

They badly missed the injured Sam Monaghan and Dorothy Wall, whose physicality was sorely lacking on a day when the Japanese players dominated Ireland on the gainline.

grace-moore-on-the-attack Grace Moore impressed in the back row. Akito Iwamoto / INPHO Akito Iwamoto / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland’s core skills let them down under pressure and fatigue. Inaccurate passes, sloppy breakdown work, set-piece malfunctions – there was a host of issues that combined to deny them any flow in a game where Japan showed a startling improvement. Set-piece consistency will be crucial for Ireland as they look to build over the coming seasons. 

McWilliams and his coaches understand exactly how much work is still ahead of them. If any of the players need a reminder, it will come in painful fashion in October and November when they watch from the outside as the World Cup swings into life in New Zealand.

It remains jarring that Ireland are not part of it but the hard work to ensure that low is never repeated again is well underway. One of McWilliams’ biggest jobs was wiping clear the festering negativity that surrounded the Ireland squad in the wake of their failure to qualify.

The mood around the Irish group has undoubtedly been transformed but the players now turn their attention back to the All-Ireland League or their club commitments in England instead of the World Cup.

It’s a long wait until March and the Six Nations, where the pressure ramps up on Ireland again as they look for the top-three finish that would qualify them for the top level of the new WXV competition next autumn.

The first Irish women’s professional contracts are on the horizon, so really this remains just the start of a journey that leads towards the 2025 Rugby World Cup. Even that far on, Ireland might see Japan 2022 as having been a key step in it all.

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