Hannah O’Connor admits that the priority of closing this brief international window with a second win will be embellished by the desire to give her captain Ciara Griffin a valedictory send-off after the 27-year-old’s shock decision to publicly announce her retirement this week.
Blackrock back-row O’Connor confirmed that Griffin had confided in her squad some time ago about her decision and now the focus switches to ensuring that a disappointing year doesn’t end on another low against Asian minnows Japan.
“Obviously it's the big news this week,” says 30-year-old O’Connor, “and we as players are that bit closer to her so we've known for a while and have nothing but respect for her decision.
“She is very young in terms of age but she's been around and is such an experienced player. She's a massive part of this group and all you have to do is look online and see her name trending and realise what she means to everyone, both her teammates and anybody who has ever crossed paths with her.
“It'll be a massive loss to us but we fully respect her decision and wish her the best in the next chapter of her life which is exciting for her as well.
“It adds extra excitement, that want to give her the send-off she deserves,” adds Shannon star Aoife Doyle, with veteran prop Lindsay Peat also expected to join Griffin in hanging up the green jersey on Saturday.
Departing head coach Adam Griggs is also leaving after this weekend’s Japan tussle and there is a brief glimpse of the future with three uncapped players named in his final selection.
All eyes will be on those that are departing, however, including the sport itself which seeks to banish a miserable 2021, on and off the pitch, to the attic of memory.
“I obviously didn’t play with her last week and so this week it is extra motivational to make it special for her,” adds Doyle.
“You’re losing a massive leader but also a friend. I played with her since U18 at Munster so I’ve known her all my rugby career. I’m very close to her, she brings me up and down from Limerick to camp.
“She’s just a very selfless, nice person and then on the pitch she’s a leader and when she speaks everyone listens. We’re losing a great friend and a great leader.”
Leinster duo Mary Healy and Ella Roberts and Connacht back Shannon Touhey are all included for the first time and will be hoping to make an impact off the bench, while there are a number of players handed exciting starting opportunities this weekend.
Munster’s Doyle makes her welcome return to the starting XV and is joined in the back three by Lauren Delany and Laura Sheehan, who are retained from last Friday’s win over USA in Dublin.
Eimear Considine and Sene Naoupu continue their midfield partnership, but there is a new-look half-back pairing for Ireland with Kathryn Dane starting at scrum-half and Enya Breen in the pivotal out-half position.
It is Breen’s first start in the number 10 jersey and is an invaluable chance for the 22-year-old to build her Test experience.
Breen replaces Stacey Flood at out-half, who along with Beibhinn Parsons, Eve Higgins and Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe are not involved on Saturday as they fly to Dubai on Sunday to prepare for Ireland’s return to HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series action next week, as the team build towards the 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens Qualifiers.
In the pack, Laura Feely, Neve Jones and Linda Djougang are named in the front row, with the experienced Aoife McDermott returning to the second row alongside Sam Monaghan. Griffin starts at blindside flanker for her 41st Ireland cap, with Edel McMahon continuing at openside and Hannah O’Connor back in the starting team at number eight following injury.
It will be a special occasion for the three uncapped players on the bench, as Healy, Touhey and Roberts all hope to win their debut cap in front of a home crowd at the RDS.
Roberts, in particular, is enjoying an excellent season having impressed for Leinster in the Vodafone Women’s Inter-Provincial Championship and in the Energia All-Ireland League for Wicklow RFC.
Commenting ahead of the game, Griggs said: “Following on from last week’s win over USA, this is a really exciting opportunity for the group as we head into our second Autumn Test. A number of players have earned their opportunity and it’s important to explore the depth within the group and build layers of experience as the group build towards the 2022 Women’s Six Nations.
“It is particularly exciting to see a number of young players coming through the Inter-Pros and All-Ireland League, and for them to get their chance at Test level this weekend is paramount as the team enters a new cycle.”
Saturday’s game is live on RTÉ2 and tickets are available to purchase via Ticketmaster.ie
Ireland v Japan Women, Autumn Test, The RDS, Saturday, November 20, kick-off 3pm:
15. Lauren Delany (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby)(17)
14. Aoife Doyle (Railway Union/Munster)(6)
13. Eimear Considine (UL Bohemians/Munster)(22)
12. Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/Leinster)(45)
11. Laura Sheehan (Exeter Chiefs/IQ Rugby)(5)
10. Enya Breen (UL Bohemians/Munster)(8)
9. Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere/Ulster)(17)
1. Laura Feely (Blackrock College/Connacht)(22)
2. Neve Jones (Malone/Ulster)(5)
3. Linda Djougang (ASM Romagnat Rugby/Leinster)(16)
4. Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/Leinster)(17)
5. Sam Monaghan (Wasps/IQ Rugby)(4)
6. Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemians/Munster)(Captain)(40)
7. Edel McMahon (Wasps/IQ Rugby)(13)
8. Hannah O’Connor (Blackrock College/Leinster)(6).
16. Cliodhna Moloney (Wasps/IQ Rugby)(30)
17. Katie O’Dwyer (Railway Union/Leinster)(4)
18. Mary Healy (Naas/Suttonians/Leinster)*
19. Anna Caplice (Gloucester-Hartpury/IQ Rugby)(15)
20. Maeve Og O’Leary (Blackrock College/Munster)(1)
21. Alisa Hughes (Railway Union/Leinster)(13)
22. Shannon Touhey (Tullamore/Connacht)*
23. Ella Roberts (Wicklow/Leinster)*
* Denotes uncapped player
Meanwhile, Japan Head Coach Lesley McKenzie has handed Otoka Yoshimura her first test cap for Japan, after being named in the second-row.
Captained by Saki Minami, the team will be looking to finish strongly, as they take to field for the final fixture of their three match European tour after successive defeats to Wales and Scotland.
Japan: Ria Anoku; Hinano Nagura, Noriko Taniguchi, Mana Furuta, Komachi Imakugi; Ayasa Otsuka, Moe Tsukui; Sachiko Kato, Nijiho Nagata, Makoto Lavemai, Kie Tamai, Otoka Yoshmora, Yuka Sadaka, Seina Saito, Misaki Suzuki, Ayano Nagai.
Replacements: Hinato Komaki, Ayumu Kokaji, Wako Kitano, Saki Minami capt, Iroha Nagata, Yuki Ito, Megumi Abe, Minori Yamamoto.