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World Cup squad on the board leaves nervous wait behind Ireland's elite women, but tough tasks all ahead

Ashleigh Baxter has had to adapt her game since starring in the 2014 World Cup.

THE NERVOUS TIMES are over for Ireland’s top 15-a-side female rugby stars.

By now, worries over whether they will be named in Tom Tierney’s 28-woman squad for next month’s home World Cup will have been replaced by disappointment or affirmation as the IRFU prepare to announce the list tomorrow.

After just three weeks off after their problematic – yet almost glorious – Six Nations campaign, 48 players came under consideration for Tierney and into the national training camps that ran since May. A small cull came a month later, and tomorrow the cream of this particular crop will be assured of a role during next month’s tournament on home soil.

“There’s definitely pressure coming. We’ve a good extended squad at the minute and everyone’s putting the work in,” said Hannah Tyrell recently, ever so slightly envious of nations like France, Australia, England and New Zealand who have long since let the ink dry on their travelling parties.

Without logistical concerns, there has been no such rush for Tierney and Anthony Eddy.

“Nobody’s assured of a place in the squad and it is a nervous wait. You would rather have it done with if it wasn’t for that niggling feeling you won’t be named. It’s great for our squad, great to see that depth coming through and it can only be good for Irish rugby.”

When Ashleigh Baxter spoke to The42 last week, the nerves were still palpable for the quiet Down woman who is Tyrell’s predecessor in the number 14 jersey.

Ashleigh Baxter celebrates her try

“What happens happens,” Baxter said with a philosophical shrug.

The 25-year-old has had to adapt her game this year, with only a handful of behind-closed-doors warm-ups and inter-provincial appearances for Ulster to aid her transition to become a back row.

A contracted Sevens international, Baxter was the youngest member of Ireland’s 2014 World Cup campaign, impressing as Ireland excelled in Marcoussis, including that historic win over the Black Ferns, after playing a part in the Grand Slam success a year earlier.

However, her start in the third place play-off in that tournament was her last as an international wing. The Sevens programme has taken Baxter’s commitment ever since and she has been central to Eddy’s side going from strength to strength in the short form of the game.

“I’ve played a little bit this year with Ulster and the Japan camp,” she offers as openside  experience.

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Lynne Cantwell presents the jersey to Ashleigh Baxter Lynne Cantwell presents Baxter with one of her final number 14 jerseys. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s a transition she has coped well with thanks to some helpful coaching along from Tierney’s staff and her fellow forwards, even at a distance while she was displaying a slightly different set of talents on the Sevens circuit.

They’ve really helped me, kept me up to date with all the plays and patterns. It’ll be a matter of repping things out and getting timings right, but it should be okay.”

“I haven’t been in camp as much as the rest of them but the girls keep saying it’s the toughest they’ve ever been put through. They’ll be in good shape.”

Indeed, rather than be hindered by her absence from the Six Nations campaign, Baxter’s Sevens pedigree can actually be a benefit to Ireland.

Not only because of her history of different positions, but also because the duration of the Women’s World Cup necessitates quick turnarounds between matches, limiting time preparation and maximizing fatigue. The prospect of matches with diminishing structure and increasing space should be viewed with relish by teams capable of thinking on their feet and exploiting space.

Baxter adds, “And with Sevens we’ve played against a lot of these international teams all year, so that will help as well.”

On 9 August she hopes to face off against familiar faces like Sharni Williams, Shannon Parry and Mahalia Murphy as Australia stand between Ireland and an opening day win. The Ulster woman nods, her memories heavy with frustration, of meeting the Olympic champions on the World Series stage.

“Nearly every tournament they’re in our group!”

The athletic openside will also be among the most familiar with the Belfield Bowl in UCD, having played the short from of the game there as Ireland won World Series qualification, missed out on a place in the Olympic Games and then, in 15-a-side, defeated Japan in this summer’s first uncapped trial run.

“It’s a nice venue, the pitch is good and the crowd’s quite close. It will be interesting to see when the new stands are on it, I’d say it will be good noise at it.”

“We’ve stayed there too. Nice single rooms, but I normally have a roomie… I’m one of the players that wrecks everyone’s heads, trying to get them out doing things, get them in trouble.”

Over the course of a three-week tournament, that sort of bad influence could be just what’s needed to keep morale and adaptability high.

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Sean Farrell

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