Dublin: 19°C Saturday 24 July 2021

Kicked to touch? An open letter from frustrated supporters of women's rugby in Ireland

Frustrating inconsistency is hampering Ireland ahead of home Rugby World Cup.

Ireland team huddle Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO


When we were returning to Ireland after the Women’s Rugby World Cup in France in 2014, we were exhausted but so excited about the future of women’s rugby in Ireland.

We had beaten New Zealand, the first international team in Irish history to do so.

We eventually lost to England in a tough semi-final but anyone who was in Marcoussis that day knows the feeling of anticipation and expectation that lay ahead of this team.

Ireland had been underestimated by New Zealand, and even by some of their fans, but they over-delivered and it led to one of the greatest days in Irish sporting history.

Naturally after a World Cup a team goes through a transition period. Philip Doyle retired as head coach of the team as did Ireland’s most capped players, Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell, along with Siobhan Fleming, Laura Guest and Grace Davitt.

However, the future was bright for the Irish team. Niamh Briggs was named in the team of the tournament (Scrumqueens) and took over the captaincy from Fiona Coghlan. Alison Miller, who scored one of the most famous tries of the tournament, was coming into her own and a wealth of players who had stood up at the World Cup were ready for the next challenge.

Between the first game of the 2015 Six Nations and the Italy match two weeks ago, 32 new players have been capped under Tom Tierney and the management team;  that is 32 new caps in 16 games since the 2014 World Cup.

To put that into context, during Philip Doyle’s last four years as Irish head coach, 21 new players were capped across four seasons, including one World Cup and four Six Nations tournaments. Fourteen of those 21 caps came in the first two years of the World Cup cycle. Not only did this give the players time to gain invaluable Test match experience, it also allowed them to develop and implement structures while building effective partnerships on the pitch.

Niamh Briggs celebrates at the final whistle Niamh Briggs leads the celebrations after Ireland's historic win against New Zealand. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

New caps and inconsistencies in positions means that with three competitive games to go before the World Cup, it appears the management team still do not know who their best 23 are.

Four different scrum-halves have been used, and three different 10s – Nora Stapleton, Nikki Caughey and Sene Naoupu, who played there against England in the November international in 2015.

If they do indeed pull Naoupu from this weekend’s squad against France, Ireland have no experienced 10 in the current set up to call upon should Nora Stapleton pick up an injury. Caughey remains the most realistic option, and we would be surprised not to see her included this weekend, but she has not played since being dropped after the Autumn International against Canada and wasn’t even listed in this year’s Six Nations squad that was named back in January. With out-half such a key position, our lack of depth and over-reliance on Stapleton is worrying.

Six hookers have been utilised with the potential for this to increase to seven depending on who is selected to cover for the injured Jennie Finlay this weekend. Meanwhile, two capped Irish international hookers are playing club rugby on a weekly basis – Zoe Grattage (Highfield), and Gillian Bourke (UL Bohemians) who has over 50 caps to her name and whose club are currently sitting on top of the AIL League.

Since 2015 the management team have used eight different centre partnerships – Naoupu, a stalwart in the 12 position, has played with five different 13s outside her. How can an effective partnership be developed with so much change?

Sene Naoupu Sene Naoupu: no settled partner in Irish midfield. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

Nine different wingers have started the last 16 Test games while Tierney has also capped eight different props, Ailis Egan and Lindsey Peat being the only two consistently called upon.

However it wasn’t until the Autumn Series in 2016 that we saw the most inconsistency from the Irish camp. We were set up to play England, Canada and New Zealand, the top three teams in the world, an ambitious series however you want to look at it.

In the England game three players received their first caps for the women’s team, but this is what Autumn Series are for isn’t it, trial and error?

For Canada there were 10 changes to the side that lost to England and two new caps again. And finally New Zealand, the first matchup since our historic victory, again saw 10 changes from the team that lost to Canada.

Ireland finished the series 0-3.

At this stage, we were less than 12 months away from a Rugby World Cup and it appears that the Irish management team really has no idea who their best 15 are, because your best 15 are those whom you should have sent out to take on the three top-ranked nations in the world. It should then be up to new players to break into this squad and rightfully take a position.

So following this we now have a wealth of players capped for Ireland, but what has this given us? There are a large number of players with two or three caps to their name, with very limited time on the pitch, who were brought in for a match here and there and then released back out to the extended squad to continue with the international strength and conditioning programme with no clear information from management on whether they are still in the plans for the looming World Cup.

Would it not have been more beneficial to integrate players gradually into the team whilst having them surrounded by experience? Tierney may argue that he has developed a wider pool of experienced players but are players with a handful of caps and limited playing time really experienced players?

Would it not have been more effective to cap fewer players and give those involved more playing time? If the argument is that there are not enough competitive internationals to test players then why has the IRFU not developed the interpro series further or started up an U20s side like England and France?

Tom Tierney speaks to his players after the game Tierney: does he know his best 23 in this World Cup year? Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

While all this is going on, we need to remember that the women’s 15s setup in Ireland is still non-professional. These players are still in college or working Monday to Friday and training in the morning, evening and at the weekend.

These players are sacrificing their personal life for the women’s game and, in our opinion, are not getting the same level of commitment from the union in return.

If the current reports are true and the team is to lose three starting players ahead of the crucial clash against France, a team they will also face in this year’s World Cup, it is just another way of telling the players in the 15s setup that they are not going to be given the opportunity to have a consistent build-up to the World Cup in Dublin and Belfast this August.

In 2016 the focus was on 7s, and this is perfectly acceptable as the squad were chasing qualification for the Rio Olympics.

This year Ireland are hosting the world’s biggest competition in 15s rugby and they are still not been given the support of the union to fairly compete at the tournament. Anthony Eddy, an internationally recognised 7s coach, has a clear plan for the 7s development but unfortunately we have not seen the same approach for the 15s game.

Accountability is a term often used by coaches: be accountable for your position, for your player, for your job. We would like for Tom Tierney, Anthony Eddy and the management team to be held accountable for the inconsistencies that are rampant within this setup.

We want someone from the IRFU to clarify how less than three years after beating the world champions, with just six months remaining before hosting the World Cup, and 32 new caps later, how we are just narrowly beating Scotland, a team who we have not lost against since the 2006 World Cup.

IRFU, Eddy and Tierney, please do not underestimate us like New Zealand underestimated Ireland on 5 August in Marcoussis in 2014.

Please do not think that we, as a nation, are happy for you throw away our chances of reaching a World Cup final on home soil.

Please do not think that we, as Irish supporters, do not expect to win every match that Ireland step out to play.

And please do think about how seriously we support the women’s game in Ireland and how much we want to see it grow and flourish in the weeks, months and years to come.

– Denise Kennedy and Beth Twomey are frustrated supporters of women’s rugby in Ireland.

Subscribe to The42 Rugby Show podcast here:

IRFU to pull three key Ireland players from Six Nations to go on 7s duty

About the author:

Denise Kennedy and Beth Twomey

Read next: