Nichola Fryday has retired from Ireland duty. Tom Maher/INPHO

No head coach and now no captain, Ireland's rebuild takes another hit

Nichola Fryday was the most experienced player in an inexperienced squad.

THE DISCOMBOBULATING SEESAW of good news seemingly always being followed by bad news in Irish women’s 15s rugby continues with no let-up.

Today, the first-ever Ireland Women’s U20 squad are travelling to Italy where they’ll spend a week training and playing against their Italian and Scottish counterparts. The women’s pathway has been crying out for competition at this age grade and the Irish squad includes some highly-promising youngsters. This is welcome progress.

But today has also brought the big blow of senior Ireland captain Nichola Fryday announcing her retirement from international rugby at the age of 28. The second row will continue to play club rugby with Exeter in England but has called time on her Ireland career after 34 caps. Fryday is a major loss.

She said this is “a natural end” and that she will focus on developing her career away from rugby. That has to be respected. But for Ireland supporters, Fryday finishing up with Ireland at just 28 probably doesn’t feel all that natural. She’s an excellent player only entering her prime. In an inexperienced Ireland team, Fryday has been the most experienced player.

The fact that Fryday’s predecessor as Ireland captain, Ciara Griffin, also retired from the role at the age of 27 is certainly cause for concern. Speaking about her decision in late 2021, Griffin said it was time to “put my family first for a change.”

Griffin’s retirement was a big shock and came hot on the heels of Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, but the sad thing is that Fryday’s decision doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

Her emotional post-match interviews following each of Ireland’s five defeats in the Six Nations this year were tough viewing. Amidst the battle to turn things around on the pitch, being Ireland captain also means dealing with whatever the latest controversy is. During the Six Nations, Fryday had to field questions about whether the team faces sexism from within the IRFU. To be blunt, being Ireland captain looked like no fun at all.

There was undoubtedly huge pride in captaining her country since last year, but one has to wonder what the story would be now had Fryday been part of a more successful Ireland set-up. Perhaps it might have helped convince her to play on.

Fryday is understood to have been one of a handful of England-based players who turned down a contract offer from the IRFU last year. There has been an overfocus on the financial side of this story – most of the players in England are earning less for rugby than they could have in Ireland – when the concerns of most were around the lack of quality and clarity in Ireland’s domestic game. That issue remains unresolved and several Irish players feel they will only develop by playing club rugby in England.

dannah-obrien-dejected-after-conceding-a-try Ireland had a tough Six Nations this year. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

There’s no doubt Fryday put her heart and soul into this Ireland team. Now they must move on without her.

Ireland currently don’t have a head coach. Greg McWilliams stepped down from the position by “mutual consent” in May. The experienced John McKee is in the role on an interim basis but back in May, the IRFU said the search was ongoing for “the best candidate that’s out there,” with CEO Kevin Potts promising the budget was available to make a strong appointment. The update today is that the process is still ongoing and the IRFU’s hope is to make an announcement sooner rather than later.

There haven’t been many mutterings about who might be interested in the role and indeed, one has to wonder how attractive a position it is now. Ireland are rebuilding from a notable low point.

There’s another role to fill now that team manager Alana Gattinger, who only joined in February of this year, has departed. Again, the IRFU says the process of finding a replacement is ongoing.

To be fair, there is improved investment from the IRFU in women’s 15s rugby. Belatedly, some would argue, but the resources are there like never before, even if it will take time for the playing quality to truly come through as a result.

Getting someone into the head coach role permanently is pressing given that Ireland are back in competition in less than three months. They’re part of WXV 3, the lowest division in World Rugby’s new annual global competition. Ireland will face Fiji, Colombia, Kenya, Kazakhstan, and Italy or Spain in a tournament held in Dubai from 14 to 28 October.

The winner of WXV 3 will be promoted into WXV 2 for next year, so this is a chance for Ireland to start winning games again, build confidence, and finally get some momentum. Even if the competition will be played well out of the spotlight during the men’s World Cup in France, it’s going to be an important step.

Not having Fryday’s calming influence, lineout leadership, physicality, and all-round locking skills in Dubai will make Ireland’s lives more difficult. 

The new head coach will have an important call to make on the captaincy front. No one else in the most recent Ireland squad had reached the 30-cap mark. In fact, only five of them have 20 caps or more – Linda Djougang, Lauren Delany, Nicole Cronin, Edel McMahon, and Dorothy Wall.

linda-djougang Linda Djougang has 29 caps for Ireland. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Explosive lock Sam Monaghan has become an influential figure in the group and could be considered, while it will be intriguing to see if experienced hooker Cliodhna Moloney is brought back into the fold having not featured under McWilliams. Many had considered Moloney a candidate to take over as Ireland skipper after Griffin’s retirement.

Whatever call the next head coach makes, Dubai in October is looming.

Ireland’s home-based internationals are currently training with their provinces in preparation for the Interprovincial Championship, which kicks off on 12 August, so the season is underway soon.

The hope is for a high-quality series of inter-pros to tee up a big campaign for Ireland. Meanwhile, the Ireland 7s squad are still basking in the afterglow of qualifying for next year’s Olympics. That divide is another can of worms.

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