Monday 22 December 2014

Irish pride may be dented but potential must be pursued

Success of the Irish team in the World Cup in France opens the door for Ireland to host the women's tournament, says Brendan Fanning

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

Fiona Coghlan
Fiona Coghlan

Two little turns in the road en route to last week's Women's World Cup semi-final suggested it might end in the ditch for Ireland. The first was a radio interview given by their coach Philip Doyle. The second was the announcement of the shortlist of contenders for the player of the tournament award. You looked at both and reckoned that over in the England camp they were spoilt for choice on the motivation front.

First, there was the interview. You'll remember that in the immediate aftermath of the pool win over Kazakhstan captain Lynne Cantwell was asked could Ireland go on and win the tournament outright. "Yes we can," she said.

The timing of these interviews, hot on the heels of the final whistle, is the fertile period for those of us in the business of conceiving quotes. Sometimes you get a gusher, delivered by the surge of adrenaline that has not yet subsided. This wasn't one of those however. It was actually a remarkable moment, for Cantwell was still pumped, yet looked like she consciously regulated her breathing and delivered the message with a mixture of composure and determination. Uniquely perhaps, there wasn't a hint of arrogance about it.

Between then and the semi-final against England four days later the Irish girls were written and talked about as never before in the women's game here. We focused on their remarkable journey from easy-beats to contenders, a transformation nicely illustrated by how they had closed the gap against England. Having suffered against them ritually, Ireland beat, for the first time, an understrength England last year en route to a Grand Slam, and then this year in Twickenham lost only by a score.

Step forward Ireland coach Philip Doyle. Nobody is better positioned to tell the story of this group for he is now wrapping up his second, and final, stint at the helm. The day before the semi-final he was asked about what line-up his opposite number Gary Street would go for, given the tremendous depth at his disposal.

"We don't really care what he puts out on the pitch because we're still going to beat them," Doyle said. Unlike Cantwell's comments, it simply came across all wrong. Especially when later in the same piece he added: "Let's just hope we still have a little more in the tank."

You don't say you're going to shoot the lights out if there is a question mark over the amount of ammunition you have in the first place. And Doyle's concerns were justified: on the one hand he knew better than anyone the limitations of his bench; and no one knew how much the New Zealand game had taken from the tank.

Next there was the shortlist for player of the tournament. If it seems odd that the nominations should be made ahead of the semi-finals, then the IRB's excuse is that it was logistical. With only four days between semis and final they needed to have the stage set as soon as possible. We're not talking Garth Brooks country though are we? Surely the votes could have been gathered on the night of the penultimate games?

Whatever, the effect was to give the England management the final paragraph in their motivation speech. Remarkably, none of their girls made the shortlist of four. You can picture the scene at the team meeting before they left for Stade Jean Bouin last week: 'We're sick of hearing how good this Ireland team are, and how strong is their spirit. And now they get a girl on the shortlist and we get none?' That's when the door would have come off its hinges.

If you were English then it was the perfect storm. Down the corridor in the Ireland changing room, it was humiliating, for the scoreline accurately reflected the pattern of the game. Rather than kick for position from their own territory, England took Ireland through painful phases where they did huge damage, passing the ball 187 times to Ireland's 80. It was four years of hurt being unloaded into 80 minutes of destructive and very impressive rugby.

Imagine the pain in Irish limbs dragging themselves out of bed the next morning? Eh, to face preparing for France this afternoon in a stadium where 90-something per cent of the fans will be screaming themselves hoarse for the home team.

This presents a very tricky management challenge for Doyle. The good news is that his team want to wash out the taste left by the England defeat. The bad news is they may not have the strength to gargle. To compound matters, there is the emotional weight of his own departure, as well as manager Gemma Crowley.

They are very popular figures within the group. Doyle was making a tremendous contribution to this cause long before anybody knew his name. You wouldn't envy him scripting the exit though without it dissolving into tears.

His captain, Fiona Coghlan, is in the same boat. It will be interesting to see what role she is given next. We're presuming she will be utilised in some capacity for the loosehead prop is the perfect combination of a strong leader on the field and a persuasive advocate off it. And there is a fair bit of advocacy to be done.

The measure of the IRFU's commitment to the women's game is unclear. The Sport for Business blog last week floated the idea of UL - with access to Thomond Park - being the perfect candidate for the next tournament, which is just three years away to avoid a clash with the Olympics and World Cup Sevens. The tendering process will be established after the IRB council meeting in October, but the Union have no interest, unfortunately.

Yes, the priority by a distance is the bid for RWC 2023, a project well under way, but the logistics of hosting the women's event are not forbidding - witness the short lead-in time for those keen on staging the event.

The trick with these gigs is to have decent accommodation on site to avoid transport costs to more expensive accommodation elsewhere, something the French got wrong. UL could be the perfect setting, and you wouldn't need to be the marketer of the year to create very attractive holiday packages around the event. You might be able to run it off for €1m.

Would we have a competitive team in three years though to take advantage of the home crowd? The age profile of the current crew is not great, and neither is the pool of replacements very deep. Fixing that is a long-term project, and we're only toeing the starting line on that one. The achievement in France over the past fortnight, of reaching a first ever semi-final, is reason to run the race however. And a good finish this afternoon would make for the perfect start.

France v Ireland,

TG4, 3.30

England v Canada,

TG4, 5.45

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