England showdown kicks off crunch year for Ireland women
A three-week series starting this afternoon against England in Belfield, and then featuring Canada and New Zealand over the next two weekends, is like taking the toughest World Cup pool imaginable and dropping it into November. So Ireland's women will have their hands full.
Starting that journey without hamstrung captain Niamh Briggs, their best forward Sophie Spence - who is on return to play protocol following concussion - and long-term ACL victim Ruth O'Reilly is hardly ideal. The upside is the opportunity afforded to others, so if you're in the business of building a squad for the Six Nations and then the World Cup next summer, spreading the load now is not a bad thing.
"We have a huge pool of players, bigger than we've ever had before," says Nora Stapleton, fighting hard to retain the 10 jersey from Nikki Caughey. "It's what you need coming in to a World Cup: you need that competitiveness within the squad. Everyone is fighting for positions, which is a really healthy thing. And that's probably the best thing about it at the minute, in that nobody's secure really in their position and there's a lot of people looking to get a jersey on their back."
The highlights for the Ireland women have been the Grand Slam of 2013 and the win over New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup, both of which were inconceivable in the early days of their journey.
"We look back on the Grand Slam as a stepping stone to something else, and it's a nice memory to have - a really nice memory - but we're already a different team," says Stapleton. "I think we're playing better rugby than we were playing back in 2013, and we're playing different rugby. So we drew a line underneath that. The same way when we beat New Zealand in the World Cup. It's an amazing memory to have but all the teams have improved since them, as have we."
Preparation helps, and to that end they had two camps in DCU last month ahead of assembling on Thursday for the England Test. The advent of November rugby last season - a one-off game against England, lost 8-3 in the Stoop - has developed into a full-blown series now which will give the women their biggest nine months ever, culminating in the World Cup in UCD.
"We've done more preparation now than we've ever done before," Stapleton says. "But to have three extremely tough fixtures where we're going to learn a lot about stuff that we're working on . . . that's the main thing for us: can we gel as that playing squad on the pitch."
Ireland: M Coyne; N Kavanagh, N Fowley, S Naoupu, A Miller; N Stapleton, L Muldoon; L Peat, C Moloney, A Egan, ML Reilly, O Fitzsimons, C Griffin, P Fitzpatrick (capt), C Molloy. Replacements: L Lyons, F Hayes, F Reidy, K Norris, C Pearse, M Healy, N Caughey, J Shiels.
Ireland v England, 2.0, Belfield Bowl
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