Absence of sevens players for Six Nations is ‘the elephant in the room’ – Ireland women’s coach Greg McWilliams

Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams. Image: Sportsfile.

Sinead Kissane

Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams says the absence of sevens players is the “elephant in the room” after he named his team for their Women’s Six Nations opener against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday.

McWilliams has named one debutant in his team - 18-year-old Ulster prop Sadhbh McGrath – in a starting side that shows eight changes to the team that started last year’s Six Nations opener against Wales at the RDS.

Sevens players like Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe and Beibhinn Parsons are not included in the squad for this campaign as they focus on trying to qualify with the sevens team for next year’s Paris Olympic Games.

McGrath will make her debut in the front row alongside the experienced Neve Jones and Linda Djougang. Maeve Óg O’Leary will win her fourth Ireland cap in a backrow that features Dorothy Wall and Brittany Hogan.

In a much-changed backline from the one that started last year’s 19-27 defeat to Wales, out-half Nicole Cronin is the only starting back that remains from that day.

Full-back Méabh Deely, centre Aoife Dalton and winger Natasja Behan will feature for the first time in the Six Nations after making their international debuts on the tour of Japan last August.

The uncapped Leinster prop Niamh O’Dowd is set to make her debut from the bench which has a 6:2 split of forwards and backs. Flankers Edel McMahon and Aoife Wafer have been ruled out of the championship due to injury and no new players have yet been added to the squad.

After finishing fourth in last year’s Six Nations, a top-three finish will guarantee Ireland a place in the top tier of the new global women’s tournament, the WXV, later this year.

“If we’re to get three wins, we get to the WXV, we’re in the top tier. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, we don’t have sevens players but I can get a true reflection on where we stand moving into next year. Wherever we finish at the end of the Six Nations, its where we deserve to be. And if it’s not good enough that starts with me, I’ll own it,” McWilliams said.

“And if it goes in a good direction and we manage to pick up good results and our process is getting better and people can see that we’re trying to play in a certain way and that’s clear, I’ll be delighted. But we’ll know where we stand on Saturday and we’ll know where we stand at the end of the Six Nations and we’ll own that.”

“I want to win every game we play,” McWilliams added.

"I want the people of Ireland to get excited about what we’re trying to do here. That is really important to me. Every game is a must-win. But that’s not how you view that. You can’t view that because you focus too much on results, you forget about those moments between the whistles where you’ve got to be really detailed, you got to be controlled.”

The Ireland team will feature contracted 15s players for the first time with eight IRFU-contracted players in the starting team. Ireland are the only country in the Six Nations who did not compete in last year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup. Wales made the quarter-finals of that tournament and were beaten 55-3 by the eventual winners New Zealand.

“It’s one of those things, it’s a bit unknown. Certainly, between the staff and the players we’ve got a group of people who’re working really hard. We believe that we’re well prepared for this game but so are Wales. Wales beat us last year at home, they got to the quarter-final of the World Cup,” McWilliams said.

“It’s just no matter what happens, we’ll know where we are with this group and that’s important. But certainly the evolution of professional rugby and having players in the full-time environment and then the English-based players that join us we can see that there is an improvement in their general understanding and their technical skills.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how we cope with the strain and the stress of a really strong Welsh set-piece and a Welsh defence. Their kicking game will be strong so we know what’s coming at us and it is going to be strong and it is going to be physical and its going to be very tight. It’s going to be a good test.”

McGrath will start at loosehead prop after impressing for the Combined Provinces in the recent Celtic Challenge.

“She’s just a very, very talented player with a big ceiling. We’ve had Denis Fogarty (Ireland women’s scrum coach) working a lot with her and we’ve even had John Fogarty (Ireland men’s scrum coach) come over and help us out and have a look at her to make sure that she was available to make the step up and ready to go. We’re really impressed with her diligence and her skill and her ability”.

McWilliams elected to go with a 6:2 split on the bench to try and counter the Wales power game. “I think as a coach you have to plan strategically for battle. I think we’ve got some really good players that are abrasive that can come off the bench and hopefully be able to cope with the strength and power that will can come off the Welsh bench. Hopefully we can counter-act that strength and power that Wales have.

“Look at what the (Ireland) men’s team did and what the U20s team did, I mean that’s very inspirational for us. We train in the same building as them all the time. We’re having coffees beside them. Their coaching staff have been really supportive of us.

“This is our journey. Let’s not forget that.”

Ireland team

15. Méabh Deely (Blackrock College RFC/Connacht)(2 caps) 14. Aoife Doyle (Railway Union RFC/Munster)(12) 13. Aoife Dalton (Old Belvedere RFC/Leinster)(2) 12. Enya Breen (Blackrock College RFC/Munster)(16) 11. Natasja Behan (Blackrock College RFC/Leinster)(2) 10. Nicole Cronin (UL Bohemian RFC/Munster)(21) 9. Molly Scuffil-McCabe (Railway Union RFC/Leinster)(4)

1. Sadhbh McGrath (City of Derry/Cooke RFC/Ulster)* 2. Neve Jones (Gloucester-Hartpury/Ulster)(13) 3. Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere RFC/Leinster)(24) 4. Nichola Fryday (Exeter Chiefs/Connacht)(29)(Captain) 5. Sam Monaghan (Gloucester-Hartpury/IQ Rugby)(10) 6. Dorothy Wall (Blackrock College RFC/Munster)(16) 7. Maeve Óg O’Leary (Blackrock College RFC/Munster)(3) 8. Brittany Hogan (Old Belvedere RFC/Ulster)(10)


16. Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird (Old Belvedere RFC/Munster)(4) 17. Niamh O’Dowd (Old Belvedere RFC/Leinster)* 18. Christy Haney (Blackrock College RFC/Leinster)(5) 19. Jo Brown (Worcester Warriors/IQ Rugby)(1) 20. Grace Moore (Saracens/IQ Rugby)(5) 21. Hannah O’Connor (Blackrock College RFC/Leinster)(14) 22. Dannah O’Brien (Old Belvedere RFC/Leinster)(2) 23. Vicky Irwin (Sale Sharks/Ulster)(1).