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Dan Sheridan/INPHO Going head-to-head on the line: Niamh Briggs and Fiona Hayes.
# women's AIL wrap
A fascinating coaching duel between ex-team-mates and an unbeaten record on the line
A preview of this weekend’s Women’s All-Ireland League action.

ENERGIA ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE WOMEN’S DIVISION – ROUND 6: Saturday, 22 October

Kick-off 5pm unless stated

BALLINCOLLIG (8th) v UL BOHEMIANS (7th), Tanner Park, 3pm

Energia All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Ballincollig: LLLD; UL Bohemians: LLWL
Energia All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Ballincollig: Points: Gillian Coombes, Heather Kennedy, Sarah O’Donovan, Michelle O’Driscoll 5 each; Tries: Gillian Coombes, Heather Kennedy, Sarah O’Donovan, Michelle O’Driscoll 1 each; UL Bohemians: Points: Claire Bennett 10; Tries: Claire Bennett 2

“A local derby at our home ground, what more could a player ask for?!!,” said Ballincollig head coach Fiona Hayes, as she summed up the mood in their camp ahead of their mouth-watering Munster derby against UL Bohemians.

Of course, Hayes has a long association with Bohs, particularly as their 2017 and 2018 All-Ireland League title-winning captain. This game sets up a fascinating coaching duel between former team-mates Hayes and Niamh Briggs.

It has been a tough AIL season so far for Hayes and Briggs’ teams, with Ballincollig’s recent draw with Wicklow securing their first points, and Briggs’ UL side losing three of their opening four games.

Laughing off the thoughts of a coaching head-to-head, Hayes said: “We’re focusing on ourselves for this game. Bohs are a well-coached outfit and we have a lot of respect for their players and coaches – hopefully not too much when the whistle goes!

“We’ve looked at a lot of things after the Wicklow game and we were happy with a lot of aspects of our performance. We know we need to up it a few gears now against Bohs, we’ll need an 80-minute performance.”

Losing regular out-half Kelly Griffin to injury is a blow for Ballincollig. One player who had stood out behind the Cork club’s hard-working pack is Heather Kennedy, a silky runner from full-back.

“Heather’s an exciting player with magical footwork,” said Hayes. “She is getting better with each game and is definitely a player to watch out for in the future. She has been a standout player most weeks.”

Brianna Heylmann, Abbie Salter-Townshend, Ciara O’Dwyer and Eva McCormack are all promoted from the bench to start for the Red Robins. Ciara Farrell is the final change at openside flanker.

UL Bohs team manager Carol O’Sullivan commented: “We’ve parked the game against Blackrock. We’ve spent the last week continuing to focus on what we do well and taking the opportunity to correct some of the things that let us down the last day.

“We don’t treat this any differently to another game, but obviously as it’s a local derby there is a great deal of familiarity across both clubs. It should be a great game and we’re looking forward to travelling to Cork.”

Recent League Meetings – Saturday, December 4, 2021: UL Bohemians 64 Ballincollig 5, UL Arena

COOKE (9th) v WICKLOW (5th), Shaw’s Bridge

Energia All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Cooke: LLLLL; Wicklow: LLDW
Energia All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Cooke: Points: Dolores Hughes 7; Tries: Dolores Hughes, Helen McGhee, Ilse van Staden 1 each; Wicklow: Points: Beth Roberts 13; Tries: Sarah Gleeson, Jocelyn Jones, Ella Roberts, Suzanne Tyrrell 2 each

Player coach Ashleigh Orchard, who was away with the Ireland Sevens Development squad in Elche, returns at full-back for Cooke’s crunch encounter with Wicklow. Only six points separated the sides in last season’s two meetings which produced two away victories.

Cooke are hoping to end their current losing run, with Stacey Sloan slotting back in at number 8 and captain Aishling O’Connell reverting to the front row. Cara O’Kane and Helen McGhee combine at lock. 

ella-roberts-comes-up-against-lena-kibler Ben Brady / INPHO Wicklow star Ella Roberts. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Determined to put last week’s heavy defeat to Railway Union behind them, Cooke head coach Colm Finnegan said: “We’re very focused on our performance and where we can improve from last week.

“We had a number of positives to take from last week, but we learned a valuable lesson about not giving teams too much space.

“I’m excited to see us implement some of our attacking play against a strong Wicklow team who have been growing week on week.”

One player who continues to set the standard for Cooke is stalwart prop Ilse van Staden. The former Ireland international remains one of the division’s most explosive ball carriers and is a big asset in terms of her leadership and set-piece strength.

“Ilse is a fantastic example to all the young players. She is in tremendous condition and applies herself in every session to develop,” said Finnegan. “She brings great strength, physicality and knowledge to our squad and is a leader.”

Wicklow star Ella Roberts returns at full-back following her stint in Spain with the Ireland Sevens Development squad. She could have a key role to play as they look to repeat last February’s 22-17 victory at Shaw’s Bridge.

Club captain Erin McConnell and player coach Niamh Ni Dhroma are also back in the starting XV, at inside centre and number 8 respectively. American signing Jocelyn Jones, who bagged two tries against UL Bohs, is on the bench.

Wicklow head coach Jason Moreton has dismissed last season’s win in Belfast as ‘irrelevant’, as ‘Cooke have a great new coaching set-up’. “We also played them twice in pre-season and Cooke won both games,” he revealed.

“We were delighted with the performance and win over Suttonians. Cooke away will be a massive test for the team. We need to show consistency and get a good start if we hope to pick up any points.

“Cooke will be looking at this game as a ‘must win’ to get their season going. It’s also a ‘must win’ for us to continue our good start to our second full AIL season. Our goal is a home semi-final in the 5-8th place play-offs.”

Recent League Meetings – Saturday, December 4, 2021: Wicklow 19 Cooke 20, Ashtown Lane; Saturday, February 12, 2022: Cooke 17 Wicklow 22, Shaw’s Bridge

GALWEGIANS (4th) v RAILWAY UNION (2nd), Crowley Park

Energia All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Galwegians: WDWLL; Railway Union: WWWW
Energia All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Galwegians: Points: Nicole Fowley 50; Tries: Laoise McGonagle 5; Railway Union: Points: Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe 50; Tries: Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe 10

Galwegians are back in Glenina, following two disappointing defeats in Dublin, for their final home game of the shortened AIL regular season. Captain Nicole Fowley remains sidelined due to a calf injury.

Lisa-Marie Murphy is back from injury to skipper the Blue Belles from number 8, while experienced Ireland-capped scrum half Mary Healy comes in for her first start of the campaign. Emma Keane takes the reins at number 10.

New signing Kayla Waldron, an Irish-qualified player who hails from Australia, is an exciting addition to the Galwegians bench. Part of the Ireland squad that toured Japan, she is ‘keen to get a run’ according to ‘Wegians assistant coach David Clarke.

“We were disappointed to have lost our last two games, but we’ve taken the positives out of both,” said Clarke. “We’ve trained well this week and are ready for the challenge on Saturday. The girls know how critical this game is.

“They know what a win would do for us, for our qualification hopes for the top four. We are unbeaten at home this season, this is our last game at home and so that adds to the motivation.”

The league’s top try scorer, Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, is one of a number of international players unavailable for Railway. They have made five personnel changes to the side that ran out 88-0 winners over Cooke.

amee-leigh-murphy-crowe Travis Prior / INPHO The league's top try scorer, Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, is one of a number of international players unavailable for Railway. Travis Prior / INPHO / INPHO

Aimee Clarke, Ava Ryder, Nikki Caughey, Lisa Callan and Emma Fabby are all promoted from the bench. Caughey is reunited with Ailsa Hughes at half-back, with scrum coach Lindsay Peat, the scorer of five tries last week, leading the way up front.

Railway’s senior coach Larissa Muldoon commented: “It’s great to see Galwegians competing at the higher end of the league this season. They have definitely shown massive improvements and we will be very respectful of that.

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“We will just be focusing on our process as a Railway squad and continue to build with every game. It should be an exciting fixture.”

Recent League Meetings – Saturday, February 15, 2020: Railway Union 40 Galwegians 0, Energia Park; Saturday, December 4, 2021: Railway Union 72 Galwegians 0, Park Avenue

OLD BELVEDERE (1st) v BLACKROCK COLLEGE (3rd), Ollie Campbell Park

Energia All-Ireland League Season’s Form: Old Belvedere: WWWWW; Blackrock College: WWWW
Energia All-Ireland League Top Scorers – Old Belvedere: Points: Dannah O’Brien 52; Tries: Clare Gorman 4; Blackrock College: Points: Beibhinn Parsons 35; Tries: Beibhinn Parsons 7

Somebody will have to relinquish their unbeaten record unless there is a share of the spoils at Ollie Campbell Park. With five wins out of five, Old Belvedere are top of the table as we reach the two-thirds mark in the shortened regular season.

Fresh from their involvement with the Ireland Sevens Development side, Aoife Dalton and Emma Tilly are back in the black and white hoops. Dalton links back up with captain Jenny Murphy in midfield, with Tilly lining out on the left wing.

Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird, who had an excellent start to the campaign, comes back in at number 8 as Brittany Hogan is unavailable due to Sevens commitments. Belvedere lost twice to Blackrock last season.

Anticipating a titanic tussle between the south Dublin rivals, ‘Belvo head coach Jonathan Garth acknowledged: “Recent history tells you that Blackrock and Railway are the two best teams in the competition, so it’s going to be our toughest test to date.

“I expect it to be a tight game. The weather doesn’t look great, so managing the conditions will be crucial in deciding who comes out on top.”

Fiona Tuite’s recent switching of positions from the back-three to blindside flanker has a big success for ‘Belvo. Garth says she has been ‘exceptional for us since moving to the back row’.

“Fiona is a punishing carrier and a good defender who has also shown herself to be very good at the breakdown. Having played at full-back, she has very good hands and is a natural footballer,” he said.

“She will be key for us tomorrow and is a player that will certainly be in the national coaches’ minds if she continues in her current form.”

Meanwhile, Blackrock have lost quite a bit of attacking firepower this week in the Sevens-tied Beibhinn Parsons, Emily Lane and Megan Burns. They are boosted, though, by the availability of Meabh Deely and Natasja Behan who start on either wing.

An interesting inclusion on the ‘Rock bench is Abby Moyles, who recently captained Leinster to the PwC IRFU Under-18 Interprovincial title. The Navan RFC product is highly-rated as a out-half, winning U-18 caps for Ireland in both 15s and Sevens.

“We’re excited to potentially give a first cap to Abby who has earned her spot in the replacements through a great training attitude and a top class performance in her first outing for the club,” explained Blackrock head coach Ben Martin.

Two of the newer recruits that have also impressed of late are Ulster captain Beth Cregan and Australian scrum half Tatum Bird. Martin says that Cregan is ‘quickly becoming one of the form back rowers in the league’.

“Beth has been outstanding and her leadership qualities are second to none. Tatum has seamlessly fit into our game style and has shown some real touches of class.

“Her reading of the game is well advanced for someone that’s only 22 with limited 15s experience, but we’re excited to see her development progress and hope to see her reach another height this week.”

Martin has the utmost respect for the current table toppers, branding Belvedere ‘always tough opponents’ and admitting that Saturday’s showdown ‘will be a test of our discipline to make sure we’re not playing off the back foot’.

“‘Belvo have recruited well and have a number of Irish Rugby’s rising stars in key positions, so we will need to be solid in the execution of our game-plan and make sure they’re not allowed free rein with time and space.”

Recent League Meetings – Saturday, December 4, 2021: Blackrock College 17 Old Belvedere 7, Stradbrook; Saturday, February 12, 2022: Old Belvedere 5 Blackrock College 44, Ollie Campbell Park.

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