Wednesday 17 January 2018

Cantwell insists tipping point reached as heroines shove way to centre stage

Women's rugby set for surge of interesting Irish sport

Lynne Cantwell, Ireland, offloads under pressure from Balzhan Koishybayeva, Kazahkstan, to team-mate Sharon Lynch, before going on to score her side's first try.
Lynne Cantwell, Ireland, offloads under pressure from Balzhan Koishybayeva, Kazahkstan, to team-mate Sharon Lynch, before going on to score her side's first try.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

There were just 4:50 on the clock in Marcoussis, on the outskirts of Paris, last Tuesday when Ireland were awarded a penalty in their Rugby World Cup pool game against New Zealand. From the moment referee Leah Berard blew the whistle you went into jittery mode. This wasn't just a penalty kick, it was a marker. It was an official statement from Team Ireland dealing with the issue of chances and whether or not they would be taken. We needed clarity here. The Kiwis had to understand that Ireland were coming after them, with effect as well as intent.

The girl leading that charge was Niamh Briggs. The garda from Waterford had been the metronome who guided Ireland to Grand Slam success two seasons ago. She is one of the best footballers in this World Cup. It was a handy enough kick, no more than 30 metres, and no angle to sweat over. She didn't just miss it, she shanked it.

If it hadn't come on the back on an excellent opening, when nearly all the vital signs in the Irish game had been vibrant, then it mightn't have felt so draining. But this slotted neatly into the photofit of these contests: underdogs who don't take their chances get their backsides bitten. Sure enough, when eventually New Zealand got a toe-hold in Irish territory they left their mark. So it goes.

There was a difference here though. As the Irish girls lined up behind the posts you wondered what would be said, what would be thought, and mostly what would be the tone. Lynne Cantwell, the 86-cap veteran and poster girl for women's rugby in Ireland, was the voice of experience.

"I hadn't anticipated them not counteracting what we'd been doing, or not defending against us as well as we thought they would," she says. "So it was like: 'Ok, they've scored, but let's go back to what we were doing because we were obviously being quite effective at it.' Having been around for so long and seen so many of those games, you recognise the turning points in games and it might be the 35th or 45th or 55th minute when it comes. There's always value in keeping on going and never dropping your head."

It was fitting that Cantwell took over the captaincy from Fiona Coghlan for yesterday's laboured win over Kazakhstan, a climb steepened by really poor refereeing. This skilful and combative centre has lived through more history than anyone else in the Irish women's game. Leading the team to new ground in a World Cup semi-final? It's not so much a different planet as a separate solar system to the one she encountered on her debut, against England in Worcester in 2001. Ireland got zero that day. England clocked up 79.

Playing with confidence in the beautifully redeveloped home of Stade Francais on Wednesday - against England - will be the perfect illustration of how far the women's game has come in Ireland. Asked yesterday can Ireland win it outright now, Cantwell went into Obamaspeak. "Yes we can." It was a lovely moment.

Ask her however to measure the distance from the darkest corner to the warm centre stage where she now stands and it's more of a struggle.

"You know what, it's funny when you think back because I can't think of the lowest because our norm was low," she says. "So you thought it was normal. I suppose I was buying into a new thing so you just go along with it. It was easier for me at the time because I was just a student but when you get older you realise more what the sacrifices are. You go, 'Jesus what am I doing?' But yeah, being whupped, absolutely whupped, by England the whole time, and France were fairly consistent as well, that wasn't easy."

Her debut would be a contender for grimmest encounter, as would the unscenic route taken to the south of France for the Six Nations tie two years ago. The woeful publicity from that catastrophe - incredibly the women overcame the marathon, sleepless journey to play really well - prompted the IRFU to resource the game to a more appropriate standard.

That much has been evident in Ireland's performances in this tournament. They are very well prepared, physically and tactically, which is a credit to everyone involved. The quality of rugby over the three pool games, but especially against New Zealand, the brand leaders in the women's game, has been first-class.

This will send a fair rump of the population reaching for the remote on Wednesday, to either TG4 or Sky, to see the next instalment. We'll have kids suddenly considering picking up an oval ball. They'll be 
disappointed if they log on to the IRFU website looking for up-to-date information on their new heroines, however, so it will be interesting to see how quickly the union wake up. Women's rugby is very much a minority sport that has suddenly been shoved centre stage.

We suspect there ain't too much waiting in the wings.

Compared to the big hitters in Ireland, the 5,529 players registered to rugby barely features on the screen. Ladies Gaelic football is the runaway success story in women's team sport in this country, and it has taken them 40 years to get there. They now have 150,000 members registered across 32 counties. Like its male equivalent, it covers clubs - 1,200 GAA clubs have ladies sections - and schools where there are national competitions at junior (under 15) and senior (under 18) levels with three grades at each age group.

Soccer is small by comparison but significant nevertheless. They have 21,590 registered members and 945 teams spread across schools and clubs. And along with the GAA, they have a head start.

What they don't have however is the window that sometimes opens for rugby - like the current World Cup, and the Olympics in Rio in two years' time. The Sevens show in Brazil will be an incredible stage but more likely it will be Tokyo 2020 before women's rugby in Ireland can hope to have any sort of pool to pick from.

In the meantime we can enjoy the exploits of this group whose confidence is soaring. You could see as much from the moments before kick-off against New Zealand last week. It's unusual to see rugby players smiling broadly before they go into battle. This however looked like a happy family gathering.

"I put fear of things out of my head a long time ago," Cantwell says. "I've been through enough games not to have that spoil the occasion for me. You look back and say, 'What was I afraid of? I did really well!' That instilled confidence over the years and your role changes within a squad and you take on more of a kind of mentoring, mothering role sometimes, so the attention goes elsewhere and you don't have that mentality coming into a game where you're nervous about it. I'm just excited by it. I'm just lucky to be enjoying this time because it's finite and if you don't enjoy it you'll regret that, you know?

"This is such a tipping point - it's such a really important time, playing and comparing yourself against the best in the world, you're playing the best you've ever played, you're in the best form ever and it was really hard to get to that point, so it would be a shame not to really enjoy it. Knowing my own personality, I knew that if I got nervous or a bit panicky then I'd be no use to the rest of the girls."

Yesterday against Kazakhstan was, as expected, a slog in the midday sun - the best element of which was that all 26 players in the squad have now had a run. Ireland were cantering at the finish, unlike last week against New Zealand. The endgame against the reigning world champions was mightily impressive. Not least the bit where Briggs had to sign off.

With 68 minutes on the clock and the scores tied 14-14, she was presented with a kick made harder by the referee insisting she move the ball wider than the correct spot, another example of bad refereeing in a competition which should be officiated by experienced male refs. It could have wrecked Briggs' head. It didn't. The nerves from that first miss were long gone. Over the black spot, and now into the semi-final. This is a great story with a bit to run yet.

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