Japan – the Land of the Rising Sun – should be the place to signal a fresh new dawn for Irish women’s rugby.
We touched on the same theme earlier in the year, during the Six Nations, but the difference now is we’re going up against global competition, travelling to the other side of the world to take on a side preparing for a World Cup.
That’s significant. In all my time with the team, we never went to Japan, and I remember speaking to Cliodhna Moloney when England went to San Diego in the summer of 2019 to play a summer series against France, Canada, USA and New Zealand – the top five teams of today.
Tours like this are a measure of a programme that’s ambitious, that wants the best. It’s not always black and white – there can be issues with finances or player availability – but England are now the standard-bearer for the game. You see the benefit of such tours all the time in the men’s game. It’s not only about the Test matches but to blood new players. It’s about time together, building culture, getting to know each other in a way that’s not always possible in camp.
Nanakorobiyaoki is a Japanese proverb meaning ‘fall down seven times, stand up eight,’ and it’s relevant to this Irish team, which is on a very different journey to Japan. What we really need to see is that Greg McWilliams’ plan is still on track. This game will highlight the work so Ireland will be improved in game two, and again going forward, incrementally edging towards the summit – the 2025 World Cup. By then, we won’t be sitting back talking about the teams that are in it, but how Ireland will fare in the 16-team competition.
There are big differences between Ireland and Japan right now. We haven’t had competitive action since the Six Nations, whereas they come in off a slew of Test games, only losing one. They’re at home so they don’t have to worry about travel or acclimatisation, and are focused on a greater goal, starting October 8 in New Zealand.
In the Irish pack, there’s certainly no shortage of experience. Linda Djougang, Neve Jones and Katie O’Dwyer were the starting three in the opening round of the Six Nations and they’re joined by Sam Monaghan and Nichola Fryday, who continue their second-row partnership, and a lively, physical back-row in Edel McMahon, Dorothy Wall and Hannah O’Connor. I’m delighted to see O’Connor get a go at eight. If we can get the ball in open play, she’s a very smart player who can make things happen.
It’s a different story in the back line, where the next generation is arriving alongside some more seasoned players. Aoife Dalton is at 13, Aoife Doyle is at 11, and some are coming up to this level from the U-18s without having played AIL or senior interpros. That leads me to fear for them as it’ll be a steep learning curve.
They’re very skilful players who have shone at underage competitions and they deserve this chance. When there’s nothing at stake for us in an overall picture, it’s the perfect time to blood such players and see if they sink or swim. We could see an Irish win, which is well within their remit, but, given that imbalance of experience, a defeat bolstered by a performance would constitute a solid result.
I know how much work they’ve put in over there and how much they want this – for themselves and the jersey. It’s clear there’s a great atmosphere in the camp and everyone is working as one unit. The management team is loaded with expertise and the girls are on the same page, which bodes well.
The thing that’s hampering them is the heat and humidity. Conditions are oppressive and it’s something they’re really not used to. Hopefully that is not what we’re talking about after the game, but it will have an impact.
Japan were unlucky to lose to Ireland in November, a game they came into on the back of very little rugby. Other than the impact of Cliodhna Moloney and an exceptional second half from Ciara Griffin, the teams were evenly matched. We were down to 14, which didn’t help, but the lesson from that game was that when Japan get going, they like to move the ball at speed, and when they do they can cut you open with line breaks aplenty.
That pace, coupled with the heat, could kill the Irish challenge. Ireland need to use their experienced pack as much as possible. Let the ball go through them. It’ll mean kicking for territory and using the set-piece, lineout and scrum, to take the pace out of the game, keeping the ball, frustrating the Japanese. If the heat is killing us, it’s imperative we slow things down.
Regardless of how it goes, this should be the first step in a new era. The next part is the contracts. There’s been lots of talk about them before the girls left and I just hope they’ve parked it since. Now, if I was there, I’d find it hard not to lose the run of myself in the excitement of being offered the chance to be a full-time, professional athlete, but they need to just immerse themselves in these matches – focus only on that.
Whatever will be in the next phase is for Gillian McDarby, the head of performance, to decide, but the players can only look after their performance. We’re on a four-year journey, not a two-match journey, and we should bear that in mind as this new day dawns.