Great to have Women's Rugby World Cup here and Ireland now have a chance to make their mark
It promises to be a tournament to remember as the girls in green take on the best teams in world rugby
FOR so long, women’s rugby has operated on the fringes of Irish sporting life but this month, after years of incremental growth, it is ready to take centre stage.
Ireland welcomes the world in the coming weeks as Belfield and Belfast open their doors to the Women’s Rugby World Cup.
Tickets for the pool stages at UCD are already sold out, while the semi-finals and final at Kingspan Stadium are moving fast as the country embraces an international event on home shores.
It’s a far cry from operating on the margins of Six Nations weekends at Templeville Road or in Ashbourne RFC, venues which did their bit for the growth of the game here but have been thanked and left behind.
The big challenge for Tom Tierney’s team is ensuring that they are in the hunt when the show moves up the M1.
Three years ago, they delivered the shock of the tournament in Paris, beating the seemingly invincible Black Ferns at Marcoussis to breathe life into the competition. Now they come in above the radar as hosts and must cope with home expectation, scrutiny and all that goes with it.
Steadily, they have been growing their own profile and that of their own team; building on the work of the likes of Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell and Joy Neville, who put the side on the map in 2013 when they won the Grand Slam.
Four years on, those stalwarts have retired and handed the baton to the likes of Paula Fitzpatrick, Jenny Murphy, Sophie Spence and Alison Miller, who are now charged with delivering on home soil.
Their profile has grown with the success they’ve enjoyed, while the game has followed in tow.
Six Nations success hasn’t been a guarantee, but the 2015 title followed 2013 and while the historic win over New Zealand was followed by a disappointing fourth-place finish in France, it was still the highest finish recorded by an Irish team at a World Cup.
Although they remain comparatively small at 4,338, the number of adult women playing rugby has grown by 32pc since 2010 and the IRFU will hope that a successful tournament this month will lead to more girls and women presenting themselves at rugby clubs this autumn.
For the union, who are spending an additional €1.5m to deliver the tournament, this represents an opportunity to put their best foot forward when it comes to hosting the 2023 version of the men’s event.
They stepped up when World Rugby needed a host for this tournament as the organisation looked to move it on to a new four-year cycle and now their task is to deliver an off-field operation that runs smoothly.
It took them some time, but it appears they have thrown at least some of their considerable weight behind the women’s game; even if this year’s Six Nations was marred by controversy over players being held back for sevens duty.
Coach Tierney has come in for criticism over his rotation policy, and his argument that he was building depth with this tournament in mind will be proven right or wrong in the coming weeks.
He is right in his assertion that he needs a squad for what is a gruelling schedule, with teams playing three pool games in 11 days before the top four sides qualify for the semi-finals.
That puts a premium on results and allows little margin for error. Although they’ve avoided the three strongest teams, Ireland still have a tricky pool to negotiate as they look to build momentum into Belfast.
First up is Australia, whose focus on the sevens game earned a gold medal in Rio di Janeiro, but undermines their hopes at this tournament; Japan — who beat Ireland at the 2002 World Cup but haven’t qualified since — are the likely whipping girls and it is the final pool match against old rivals France that will likely seal Ireland’s fate.
Champions England, fully professional for this season in the hope of securing back-to-back titles, are in for a pretty easy time in Pool B, while New Zealand and Canada may do damage to each other in Pool A.
The English got a considerable feather in their caps in June when they edged out the Black Ferns on home soil in the warm-up match before the Lions’ win over the Maori in Rotorua in a game that showed off the best of the women’s game.
Those teams look a class apart and unsurprisingly the bookies can barely separate them as they price up the tournament. Canada are third in the betting, with Ireland fourth and France not too far behind in fifth.
Being outsiders won’t faze the veterans of Marcoussis, who are counting on home support to give them an extra spur in what will be the biggest fortnight of their careers.
It promises to be a tournament to remember.