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Ireland aim to get back to winning ways in exciting new Women’s Six Nations
PICTURE:
MARCH 15 2024
Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
For the third year running, the Women’s Six Nations will take place in its own separate window following the conclusion of the Men’s tournament. In a move that has been widely welcomed, each Six Nations is afforded an equal opportunity to write its own history, without the danger of being lost in the deluge of rugby on the same jam-packed weekend.

As Ireland have learned over the last couple of seasons, the women’s Six Nations’ fresh place in the calendar has brought added attention and exposure to what is a positively growing audience. The challenge facing Ireland ahead of the start of their campaign in Le Mans on March 23 is to close the gap before they fall any further behind the likes of England and their opening opponents, France.

Last year’s bottom placed finish without a single point was bitterly disappointing, and while Irish supporters may be fed up with hearing more talk of another new era, life under Scott Bemand did at least get off to an encouraging start in Dubai last October. Competing in WXV 3 was not part of some masterplan, but by emerging victorious from World Rugby’s new tournament, Ireland were able to rediscover that winning feeling following a tough Six Nations.

Although wins over Kazakhstan and Colombia, with an aggregate score of 173-3, as well as beating a vastly-improving Spain side in the final, were hugely beneficial for the mindset of the Ireland squad, there is a recognition that the quality of opponents is about to significantly ramp up over the coming weeks. Bemand has replaced Greg McWilliams at the helm, and joining from England’s renowned setup, he will hope to instil belief back into what is an exciting group of players, who will be desperate to make amends for falling short last year.

As well as the WXV3, many of the Irish players have been playing into another new competition, the Celtic Challenge, which has allowed plenty of new faces to stake their international claim. Bemand is understandably keen to broaden his talent pool, while the head coach has also freshened up the backroom team, with the addition of Declan Danaher as defence coach nicely complementing Denis Fogarty (scrum coach), John McKee (senior coach) and former Ireland international Larissa Muldoon (assistant backs and attack coach).

Settling on an initial 35-player squad, the reliable forward duo of Sam Monaghan and Edel McMahon continue as co-captains, and their experience will be crucial in terms of spearheading this fresh start. Bemand’s eagerness to enhance his depth chart is evidenced by Ruth Campbell and Katie Whelan earning a first call up on the back of featuring in the WXV3 squad, while Chisom Ugwuere, Katie Corrigan, Katie Heffernan and Clare Gorman do the same having caught the eye in the Celtic Challenge.

Andrea Stock and Shannon Ikahihifo are also included from the IRFU’s IQ (Irish-qualified) pathway, which remains an important avenue in both the men’s and women’s game. The inclusion of Seven stars Béibhinn Parsons and Eve Higgins is also a major boost, especially if the talented backs can feature prominently across the course of the Six Nations.

As ever, Linda Djougang will be the cornerstone of the Irish scrum, with the likes of Neve Jones, Dorothy Wall, Brittany Hogan and Sadhbh McGrath all hoping to add to their rapidly growing reputations. Out-half Dannah O’Brien will be all the better for her experience over the last year, while Natasja Behan and Méabh Deely are also exciting talents that will supplement the welcome return of Enya Breen from a serious knee injury.

Starts don’t come much tougher than France away, but with Italy to come at the RDS in the second round (March 31), Ireland will have a chance to get a win on the board early. If they managed to do so, it would really release the pressure valve before they welcome Wales to Musgrave Park (April 13) following the two-week break.

A tough trip to Twickenham awaits on April 20, but Ireland will hope to have hit their groove by the time they take on an outstanding England team bidding to win a fifth consecutive Grand Slam. Ireland will round off their campaign with another winnable home game, this time in Belfast against Scotland on April 27.

With each of their three home games taking place in different cities, Dublin, Cork and Belfast, there is another golden opportunity to grow their fan base. However, Ireland will likely feel that the best way to do that is by winning games, and after last season, the only way is up. There is enough talent in this squad, backed by an ambitious head coach, to get Ireland back on track whilst being realistic in terms of setting goals.

Patience is once again required because it is unfair to expect this Ireland team to be genuine title contenders considering the amount of ground they must make up on France and England in particular. That said, there is nothing to suggest that with the right structures and support systems in place, Ireland will not rediscover former glories in the years to come. For now, it’s all about taking small steps forward again by getting back to winning ways in what is an exciting new Six Nations campaign.