Sunday 18 March 2018

Numbers don't add up for Ireland women to compete at 15s and Sevens

We don't want to be jacks of all trades and masters of none - and longer form should be priority in year we are hosting World Cup

Sene Naoupu: Withdrawn
Sene Naoupu: Withdrawn

Fiona Coghlan

This selection controversy that has blown up involving the women's 15s and Sevens teams is not exactly new.

Back in December 2012 there was talk of some of our 15s players missing the Six Nations because one leg of the inaugural women's international Sevens Series was due to take place during it and another immediately after it.

Back then Six Nations and the 15s game was ingrained in the players. It was what we grew up watching, and it was only a year out from the World Cup and important for us to develop as a team, so the players committed to 15s until after the Six Nations, resulting in us winning the 2013 Grand Slam.

The day after we landed home from Italy some of our players immediately jetted off to China and finished fifth in a leg of the Seven's World Series, still Ireland's best result to date. They went on to finish seventh in the Sevens World Cup that year.

More money has gone into the Sevens programme because it was being introduced in the 2016 Olympics. The Sevens programme got Olympic funding which the IRFU matched, so the players could be put on contracts (though most still work part-time to support themselves) whereas 15s players are still fully amateur.

The summer of 2013 first saw 'player agreements' (ie contracts) offered for committing to Sevens but all the 15s players refused them and we went into a World Cup year as a cohesive group. Those were really galvanising moments in the recent history of our women's 15s.

Now, three years later, there's another 15s versus Sevens debate because three players (Ali Miller, Sene Naoupu and Hannah Tyrrell) were withdrawn from the team to face France tomorrow in order to fly out for the next leg of the World Sevens Series, in Las Vegas, on March 3-5. But being contracted to Sevens means those players have already committed to and prioritised Sevens rugby.

The 2014 World Cup showed we didn't have the required depth in our 15s squad to push past a semi-final and there was a handful of retirements afterwards.

We need to deepen the player pool if Ireland is to challenge at that top table again. We just don't have enough players now of sufficient quality to resource both 15s and Sevens, and that's why we can't fully separate the two squads yet.

I don't believe we have the necessary depth or quality yet in 15s, even with 32 new caps since 2015.

National 15s coach Tom Tierney has not really developed the depth because he is giving out so many new caps. Players need more game-time in high quality games to develop. A cap or two will not suffice.

It was great to see three quality teams coming to Ireland for autumn internationals but the number of new caps, and changes from one game to the next, did not allow worthwhile development.

This debate really shouldn't be 15s versus Sevens. Both codes are part of the IRFU's high performance department now and worth developing. What is really required is proper strategic direction of both programmes, with proper pathways and resources.

I appreciate the Sevens are trying to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and retain their World Series status but it is important not to be 'Jack of all, master of none'.

Given that it's a World Cup year - and that Ireland have a home World Cup - surely 15s should be the focus in 2017, just as Sevens was the focus last year for the Olympics?

Given the increased exposure and growing status of the Six Nations, surely we should be trying to win it?

England and France are in the same boat. They've also not yet qualified for the Sevens World Cup but are focused on developing their 15 squads ahead of this summer's WRWC.

We are still top of the Six Nations table as we face France tomorrow which I hope is a galvanising moment.

Bernard Laporte installed a new French women's coach in January and while they've had continuity in their squad, their regular No 10 Christelle Le Duff is out injured.

They started well against England before fading to lose 26-13 and then thrashed Scotland 55-0 at home.

France are favourites as they've played better rugby than us so far, but it's time now for this Irish team to go out and get a performance in front of their first home crowd of the year.

As for the men today, I feel we'll win. We've the personnel and the bench and we've learnt a lot from the Scottish game.

People talk about France's off-loading game but they do it all the time and not always at the right time. We have much more respect for the ball.

Despite their chances they've noticeably only scored one try in each of their two games to date, whereas we scored three against Scotland.

Irish Independent

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