More than Grand ambitions
THIS season will go down as the Irish women's team's greatest, no matter what happens in the Milan suburb of Parabiago tomorrow.
However, having achieved so much in 2013, Philip Doyle's team won't want to settle for a first Triple Crown and Championship title. They want the Grand Slam.
Given the men's troubles this spring, the less heralded heroines of the women's game have been thrust into the spotlight and are finally receiving attention after years on the fringes of Irish sport.
Tomorrow's game will be the first women's rugby match to be shown live on national television, with RTE broadcasting live, giving these players access to a wider market.
Doyle's job this week has been to calm his players' nerves and keep their eyes on the ball. As this campaign has progressed, the increased attention has not distracted them.
Like Ireland, Italy are enjoying an improved Six Nations – they have beaten France at home and Scotland away. A win today would make this their best championship performance, and Ireland are well aware of what they can do.
That said, Doyle's charges have lost just once to the Italians and that was back in 1997. They have enough to manage their way through this game.
To that end, Doyle has shuffled his deck, with injury forcing Jenny Murphy out of the team. Grace Davitt comes into the centre. Niamh Kavanagh will start on the right wing in place of Ashleigh Baxter, who drops to the bench along with Heather O'Brien and Shannon Houston.
The coach knows that there is a new sense of expectation on his team's shoulders and he wants them to ignore the hype and focus on the job in hand.
"We know it's a huge task ahead of us and there is a lot of expectation on our shoulders," he said.
"At the end of the day it's a game of rugby that we have to go out to win and it will be treated as another international match that the team are well up for. Italy have shown in their past matches that they are very resilient and without doubt it will be a huge task to break them down."
The experienced campaigners will have a big role to play and they are well aware that this is about more than just winning a match.
No 8 Joy Neville played her part in generating go-forward ball against France, but as director of rugby at Limerick Institute of Technology, she knows all too well what the exposure in recent weeks has done for her sport and wants the team to capitalise on the opportunity.
"We need to make the most of the exposure we are getting now to recruit more girls to the sport," she said.
"I am sure the IRFU are digesting the massive interest there has been in us this year to help us to do that.
"We put a huge amount of work in to get where we are and now we have a (Six Nations) title, but to maintain it we need to continue to have more visibility outside of the Six Nations window and take the next steps to getting more girls involved as a result.
"For so many years I was frustrated with the lack of recognition for the game here, so we now need to make the most of the coverage and interest to generate more exposure and get more girls playing.
"It's a turning point for us and we have to make the most of it in building up to the World Cup. We don't want this to be a one-off. We have a group of players and management with a great camaraderie who work incredibly hard for each other."
They have grand ambitions, starting with a Grand Slam tomorrow.
IRELAND WOMEN – N Briggs (UL Bohemians/Munster); N Kavanagh (UL Bohemians/Munster), L Cantwell (Richmond/ Exile), G Davitt (Cooke/Ulster), A Miller (Portlaoise/ Connacht); N Stapleton (Old Belvedere/Leinster), LMuldoon (UWIC/Exile); F Coghlan (capt, UL Bohemians/Leinster), G Bourke (UL Bohemians/Munster), A Egan (Old Belvedere/ Leinster), S Spence (Mowden Park Sharks/Exile), ML Reilly (Old Belvedere/Leinster), S Fleming (Tralee/Munster), C Molloy (Bristol/Exile), J Neville (UL Bohemians/Munster). Replacements: S-L Kennedy (City of Derry/Ulster), F Hayes (UL Bohemians/Munster), L Day (Waterloo/Exile), H O'Brien (Highfield/Munster), L Guest (Highfield/Munster), A Davis (Blackrock College/Ulster), S Huston (Blackrock College/ Leinster), A Baxter (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster).
Referee: C Daniels (England)
Italy v Ireland
Live, RTE2, tomorrow, 2.0
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