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'You want to make it entertaining. You want people to enjoy the spectacle'

Ireland Women finally get their new chapter underway this Saturday against Wales.

Ireland Women captain Nichola Fryday and head coach Greg McWilliams.
Ireland Women captain Nichola Fryday and head coach Greg McWilliams.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

THE NEW ERA is nearly upon us and it’s impossible to be sure how it’s going to look as it starts this Saturday at the RDS as Ireland Women take on Wales.

They have a new head coach in Greg McWilliams, a new coaching staff including Niamh Briggs, a new captain in second row Nichola Fryday, and plenty of new faces with nine uncapped players in the wider squad.

Ireland are re-starting after the low point of failing to qualify for this year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. An independent report on that qualification campaign served up 30 recommendations for improving the women’s game and the IRFU has accepted them all, pledging more money and support to the 15s programme. So, the only way appears to be up but it remains to be seen how quickly Ireland can make genuine progress.

Making a dent at the 2025 World Cup is the long-term project but there are lots of important bits in between. With the new annual global WXV competition set to launch in the autumn of 2023, finishing positions in the Six Nations become even more important.

McWilliams is the uber-positive lead for this new chapter. He was an influential assistant coach for the Irish team that won the 2013 Grand Slam and reached the 2014 World Cup semi-finals before departing to the US, where he started off coaching at Yale and ended up as an assistant for the Eagles at the 2019 Men’s World Cup.

A former teacher and coach at St Michael’s College who has also been in charge of Leinster and Irish underage teams, McWilliams is keen for this Irish team to capture the imagination of the public with their high-tempo, skillful, and positive style of play.

“That they have ambition, that they play with an excitement and vibrancy,” said McWilliams when asked what he wants punters to identify when they watch Ireland play.

“We’re rugby coaches and Nichola is a rugby player but at the end of the day, you want to make it entertaining. You want people to enjoy the spectacle.

nicole-cronin Nicole Cronin is part of the new leadership group. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s got to be part of our DNA. This is such an opportunity for these players to test themselves, work hard to get better, and try to play a style that suits the Irish people. It’s got to be full of grit, full of ambition, it’s got to be full of fun.

“I think about my mother, my sister, my wife, my daughter – they’re all front and centre of parties and have great banter and craic around it. It’s important that that comes out in how we play, as well as being kind of crafty and smart as well.”

McWilliams himself admits he is “different” from other coaches and it will be fascinating to see if his enthusiasm and focus on off-the-pitch culture can unlock the potential of this group of Irish players.

They have been out on team-building trips to adventure centres and are taking Irish language classes together as a squad as McWilliams pushes them to take pride in their background.

“I did it all through school and I’m still learning from these lessons,” says new captain Fryday. “My favourite word is báinín, which is flat white, so I walk into the players’ lounge and ask for a báinín.”

26-year-old Fryday seems a sensible choice as the new skipper. The Tullamore woman is a nailed-on starter in the second row, has 22 caps of experience, and is very popular among her team-mates.

Fryday learned of her new role in an emotional team meeting that involved her parents joining the squad via Zoom to express their pride in their daughter.

“That was special to me,” said Fryday. “They’ve been behind me the whole way since I came into the set-up, so it was really nice to have that aspect to it and it meant a lot to me and my family. It’s a huge honour.”

greg-mcwilliams-ahead-of-the-game McWilliams has returned from the US. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It’s one little example of how McWilliams and co. are trying to build a tight-knit environment. The savvy Gemma Crowley has returned as team manager, having been there in 2013/14, while McWilliams has brought back several other backroom staff from that era. 

As for the squad of players, there are some exciting new faces and it’s encouraging that they include skillful young forwards like Amanda McQuade and Aoife Wafer, as well as exciting backs. McWilliams highlighted the quality of coaching being done in the All-Ireland League as he stressed the need for Ireland to continue to push for more depth.

“The Ireland U18s squad were in last weekend with the senior girls, they had the opportunity to interact and talk to each other,” he said. “The more those young girls can actually see and touch the pathway ahead of them, the more they’ll get there.

“There’s good players coming through and the more we can improve the standard coming through from a young age, the less dependence we might have on a smaller group of players. I want to have a big group of players we can select from.”

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There are also some experienced players set to be firmly back in the mix to start games including UL Bohs out-half Nicole Cronin, who is now part of the leadership group along with Fryday, scrum-half Kathryn Dane, and number eight Hannah O’Connor.

While former captain Ciara Griffin and loosehead prop Lindsay Peat have retired, McWilliams has opted against including other experienced players like Sene Naoupu, Cliodhna Moloney, and Anna Caplice in this Six Nations squad.

“It’s important to say that the door is always open,” said McWilliams. “Selection is never easy and I was true to myself in selecting who I felt were the best players at this moment to bring Ireland forward, but I have talked to all three players.”

lucy-mulhall-stacey-flood-and-amee-leigh-murphy-crowe-celebrate-after-the-game Ireland 7s internationals like Lucy Mulhall, Stacey Flood and Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe are in the Six Nations squad. Source: Martin Seras Lima/INPHO

There are several Ireland 7s internationals in the Six Nations squad too and it’s expected that some of them will depart for the Langford 7s in Canada, which clashes with the last two rounds of the championship.

McWilliams cited the fact that this is a World Cup 7s year in explaining that he has been working with Ireland 7s head coach Aiden McNulty and the IRFU around this situation.

The Ireland 15s coach said that losing some of them at that stage of the Six Nations will be a good chance “to look at as many players as we can as we build our squad.”

So there’s plenty at play as Ireland Women turn the page. McWilliams said he hasn’t set a specific target for this Six Nations in terms of wins or finishing position, but there’s no doubting that they should be ambitious about the three home games against Wales, Italy, and Scotland. Travelling to face France and England will be huge challenges.

After the furore and off-pitch drama of the past six months, Fryday and co. get a chance to do their talking on the pitch this weekend.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we won’t qualify for a World Cup again,” said the new skipper.

“So it’s a really positive next few months and new few years and we’re really excited for it and we’re just looking forward. We’re not looking back anymore.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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