Green shoots for Ireland as Women's Six Nations takes centre stage
The Women's Six Nations took centre stage last month, as the best players in the country showcased their talents in a separate window to their male counterparts. With that shift in the calendar came extra scrutiny, which shone a light on all aspects of women's rugby in Ireland.
On the pitch, Ireland delivered what was expected of them, as they finished in third place, having won two of their three games. The reality facing them, however, is that England and France are way out in front at the moment, mainly due to the resources they have at their disposal.
To no one's surprise at all, a professional English outfit ran out eventual winners when they beat a semi-professional French side in the decider. For Ireland, there were plenty of positives along the way, not least the emergence of some very exciting young players, such as Beibhinn Parsons and Dorothy Wall.
Add in the performances of the likes of hooker Cliodhna Moloney, emerging out-half Stacey Flood and sevens superstar Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, and there is plenty of cause for optimism. Adam Griggs' side came into the tournament having not played a game in six months and the understandable rustiness showed at times over the course of their three games.
By the end of the condensed Six Nations, Ireland will have felt much more in tune with each other, as well as the game-plan, which is a constant work in progress. The disjointedness served as a timely reminder of the importance of game-time because Ireland may have had several beneficial training camps, but there is no substitute for the white heat of battle.
The squad's attention will now turn to their World Cup qualifying tournament, which it is hoped will take place in September. Ireland will go into that crucial qualifier with Scotland, Italy and Spain as strong favourites, so they must quickly turn the page and ensure that there are no slip-ups in their quest to make it to the World Cup in New Zealand next year.
The squad are expected to regather for a training camp next month and ramp up preparations, but the review process into the Six Nations will already have been well underway. When they reflect on their three games, Ireland will acknowledge that they made important strides, but at the same time, there is also plenty of room for improvement.
Having started with a thumping 45-0 win over Wales, expectations around the team sky-rocketed, but for all that their first-half performance was excellent, they took their foot off the pedal. Wales' struggles should not detract from Ireland's impressive result, yet Griggs and his players got a wake-up call in their following game, when France reminded everyone of the significant gap that exists in the women's game.
The 15-56 defeat at home in Energia Park was a bitter pill to swallow, but if there was a silver lining, it was that more people were made aware of the work that needs to be done on and off the pitch if Ireland are to challenge for Six Nations titles again soon.
It has now been six years since Ireland won their second Six Nations and if they are to get back to those dizzying heights, then changes from the ground up are needed. Ireland bounced back from the disappointment against France by putting Italy to the sword (25-5) at Energia Park, which was very timely for a couple of reasons.
On the one hand, the win ensured that Griggs' side finished on a positive note by securing third spot, while on the other, Ireland got one over on one of their main rivals for that all-important World Cup spot. That will occupy the players' minds for the coming months, but it's important to remind everyone that they will have to do so by juggling their work commitments.
For the likes of Claire Molloy and Linda Djougang that means a return to the frontline in their day job in the world of medicine. For others such as captain Ciara Griffin, there will be a return to teaching in the classroom, while the likes of Parsons and Wall will continue with their studies.
The aforementioned duo are two of the most exciting players to emerge on these shores in quite some time. Parsons burst onto the scene last year when she was playing international rugby while studying for her Leaving Cert at the same time. The Ballinasloe flying winger looked sharp again throughout the Six Nations and her two tries in the win over Wales was further evidence of her undoubted potential.
Wall is a very different kind of player, but the Tipperary woman is equally as explosive. An abrasive back-row, Wall can take her game to an even greater level over the coming years.
Parsons and Wall have become the poster girls for Irish women's rugby and rightly so. The talented pair buck the trend in that they played underage rugby growing up, which is exactly what is needed to produce more players of a similar calibre.
With more girls playing rugby in school and a more competitive Energia All-Ireland League in place, the ripple effect right up to the international team would be huge, which in turn could lead to semi-professionalism and professionalism further down the line.
That's for the powers that be to sort out. For the Ireland players, the short-term goal is all about booking their ticket to New Zealand for next year's World Cup.
Writen by: Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer Irish Independent.