Nichola Fryday: This week will test character of players

No excuses as young Ireland side out-muscled in Cardiff ahead of daunting French clash

Ireland’s Nichola Fryday is tackled by Georgia Evans of Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. Photo: Mark Lewis/Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

There was no quick getaway for the Ireland women’s team out of Cardiff on Saturday night. Unlike the men’s team, who usually fly straight back to Dublin after a Six Nations game, the women’s team stayed on in the Welsh capital before returning yesterday afternoon. There was no fast departure from the scene of their damaging 31-5 loss to Wales.

A lot of focus in the build-up to Saturday’s opener was on the absence of the sevens stars, who are focusing on qualifying for the Olympics. But the relevance of their absence was raised by Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams after a game where Ireland were completely overpowered up front, especially in a bruising first half.

“If you look at the game, we didn’t lose or win the game because of our back division. We lost the game because of the power up front. So even if we had all the sevens players in the world in the backfield, it wouldn’t have made a difference to the result.

“I was really proud of the backs and how they got on. I thought Dannah (O’Brien) came on at 10, she’s 19, Aoife Dalton is 19, Natasja (Behan) is young, Méabh Deely is young. Enya (Breen) is only 23,” McWilliams said.

“It’s easy for me to make an excuse about sevens but I don’t see that as a reason why that result happened. It’s up to us to own that and find a way to be more competitive next week.

“We’re proud. It’s hard when you’re proud. It’s hard when you come from a rugby-playing nation that are exceptionally successful.

“You feel like you’re letting them down but when the public see the road we’re going to go on now and see a group of people working hard and grafting and getting better, it will give us confidence moving forward.”

In her Irish Independent column on Saturday, former Ireland international Lindsay Peat said that not retaining the experience of players like Aoife McDermott, Katie O’Dwyer, Chloe Pearse and Cliodhna Moloney was a missed opportunity and could have helped ease this transitionary period.

“The great thing about sport is people have their opinion and I respect Lindsay’s opinion. Katie O’Dwyer has retired, to begin with. And we miss Katie around the place. She’s fantastic and we went with who we believed were the best players right now.

“I’m not suggesting that we didn’t think about those players. Chloe Pearse was close. Aoife McDermott was close but we believed we picked players right now who are in position to represent Ireland and I don’t think it would have made any difference if they were there today,” McWilliams said.

“I’m delighted with Neve Jones, our hooker. She’s outstanding. And if you look at Deirbhile Nic a Bháird, she’s an outstanding player. When you are looking at picking your team, you’re picking the best players that are available to you. And we went with who we believe are the best players right now.”

With the scrum under severe pressure in the first half, it proved a harrowing international debut for 18-year-old Ulster prop Sadhbh McGrath.

“I’m not going to sugar-coat the fact that she’d a tough start. But what I loved about Sadhbh was how she finished the first half with those two scrums and then how she started the second half.

“It wasn’t just the weight, it was the positioning that maybe she was getting in and under pressure and she counteracted that. She kept fighting, kept working through it.”

Wales are into the second year of their professional contracts and as well as competing in last year’s Rugby World Cup, the Ireland captain believes they’re the example of what Ireland can become.

“They went to the World Cup and you can see there’s a good cohesiveness amongst that squad. You can see that they have a clear identity of what they want to do and how they’re going to do it.

“I think that as we get more and more time together, that’s what we’ll be able to build upon as well.

“We’re starting off and they’re a bit ahead but I hope that we will catch up and it will start to become a real tight competition in the next few years”.

One game down and Ireland are already up against it in this Six Nations. With World Cup semi-finalists France coming to Musgrave Park on Saturday, it doesn’t get any easier for an Irish team who are under pressure to not let this tournament fall apart on them even more.

“It’s going to test the character of a lot of girls after a game like that,” Fryday added.

“You can’t put your head down. You don’t have time to sit at home and think about all the other things that could have went the other way in a match like that.

“You have to turn around and focus on what you’re going to change and what you’re going to improve on.”