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Proximity of toughest Tests tempers Irish excitement for Women's Rugby World Cup

The difficult task of escaping Pool C is at the back of Tom Tierney’s mind as he prepares a squad for a historic November series.

A BUZZ AND a bleep hit Nora Stapleton’s phone as she made her way to Belfast for yesterday’s Women’s Rugby World Cup pool draw.

Flanker Claire Molloy just had her calculator out, attempting to quantify exactly how much preparation time the Ireland squad have before hosting the showpiece tournament next August.

“Only 272 days to go!”

Excitement is building.

The Women's Rugby World Cup trophy Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With a new season only just started, August 9 2017 feels a long way away, but for an international rugby player, it’s but a handful of Tests.

“When you look at that number, some people might think: ‘that’s ages’,” says out-half Stapleton.

“You narrow it down even more, so it’s three November games, a Six Nations and then we’re into camp for Women’s Rugby World Cup.”

Yesterday morning in Belfast City Hall was a wholesome celebratory affair, with a children’s choir and build-up videos propping up a refreshingly brief ball-from-bin exercise that left Ireland in a tough pool draw alongside Six Nations champions France, Australia and (we expect) either Fiji or Japan.

Maggie Alphonsi, Fiona Coghlan and Dame Mary Peters Maggie 'The Machine' Alphonsi, Grand Slam winning captain Fiona Coughlan and Mary Peters make the draw. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Nobody ever said hosting a tournament on home soil would be easy, but a clear gimme would have been nice. Not that you’ll catch captain Niamh Briggs taking that attitude:

“It’s important to focus on ourselves now. We’ve got a draw with three really tough teams, probably excitement is the emotion. It’s now close and you can almost feel it,” says the goal-kicking fullback.

There’s a lot of rugby to be played before that, but when you get to a World Cup it’s about the stage and playing the best you can. We want to go and win it, so if you’re going to win it, you’ve got to plan on beating the best consistently.

“It’s not relevant who we have in the group, we’d have to come across them eventually, so I don’t mind who we have.”

Briggs, Stapleton and their coach Tom Tierney all touch on a similar point to ground themselves on a day designed to drum up excitement for a worldwide tournament on these shores – ‘a lot of rugby to be played’.

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It makes sense, because they don’t have to wait until August to test themselves against world class opposition. They’re on the doorstep this very month.

Tierney will today name his starting line-up for the first of three Tests in a historic November series for women’s rugby. England are the opposition in UCD for Sunday’s opening Test (KO 14.00), with World Cup bronze medalists Canada and those Black Ferns to follow before the month is out.

An audience member takes a photograph at today's pool draw Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s absolutely critical,” Tierney says of the chance to get his squad together for a string of hugely competitive fixtures. This time last year, a ceiling was broken when Ireland Women played their first one-off November Test in England. One year on, the old enemy is just the appetiser.

“England to start with on Sunday, will be very tough. But then you have teams you wouldn’t normally play, that’s hugely beneficial. It’s great for the girls, it’s great for our own planning and we’re really looking forward to it.

“It goes to show the way the women’s game is starting to grow and it’s going to get very very big.”

With the World Champions coming to town in four days’ time, Tierney was understandably slow to get excited about the World Cup draw. Instead his focus is on getting the right balance for his team right now. Besides, there’s plenty to worry about at the tail end of next summer if you dwell on it too long.

“It’s arguably the hardest group. You’re playing against very established rugby nations.

“So it’s a hard one, but there’s no point thinking about it now. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before we get there in August. We’ll plan accordingly, but we’d be confident we’ll be ready to perform as best we can in the tournament in nine months’ time.”

271 days to go.

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Sean Farrell

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