'Things are looking up as Ireland finish Women's TikTok Six Nations on a high'.
No sooner has the dust settled on Ireland's fourth place finish in the TikTok Women's Six Nations, and thoughts are already beginning to turn to what is coming down the line over the next few months.
The importance of Ireland's dramatic last-gasp win over Scotland at the Kingspan Stadium should not be underestimated because it not only ensured that Greg McWilliams' side ended the campaign on a high, but it also meant they avoided the dreaded Wooden Spoon.
Instead, Scotland finished bottom of the table, as an outstanding England team coasted to yet another Grand Slam by obliterating a strong France outfit, to further highlight that the Red Roses are way out in front on their own and will be hard to stop winning the World Cup later this year.
Although Ireland will be watching events in New Zealand from afar, having fallen short to Scotland in the qualifiers last September, thankfully, there is enough to keep the squad occupied from now until next year's TikTok Six Nations.
A Summer tour, which is likely to see Ireland travelling to Japan to play two Tests, will be hugely beneficial, while so too will further games in the Autumn window.
Plans are ongoing on how best to make the most of the remaining games in 2022, as McWilliams and his coaching staff embark on their review of the tournament just gone.
There will be no shortage of key areas that need improving, not least the set-piece, yet the positive aspects mean there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic moving forward.
At the start of the year, the target was to win all three home games, and while Ireland managed to see off Italy and Scotland, they will still be frustrated that they fell short in the Wales game.
It was encouraging to see that the IRFU's decision to move the home games around the country paid off, as the crowds came out to support in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast.
Winning away in France and England was always going to be a struggle, because Les Bleues and the Red Roses are operating at a professional level, and so it proved, as Ireland saw how much work is needed to close the gap.
That will be a gradual process over the coming years, but the fact that there is now talk of contracting 15s players is very welcome.
McWilliams will also welcome having more time with his players this summer, as the Ireland head coach looks to accelerate their development.
New stars emerged throughout the TikTok Six Nations, and it shouldn't go unnoticed that the players visibly improved with each passing game.
Neve Jones was outstanding from start to finish, as Ireland's pocket rocket hooker packed a serious punch in defence, whilst she was also a menace at the breakdown, where she won six crucial turnovers – the joint second highest in the tournament.
Speaking of defensive prowess, no player made more than the 88 tackles that Edel McMahon managed across her five tireless displays.
Sam Monaghan wasn't exactly a household name at the start of the year, yet the outstanding lock has quickly become an influential figure in this Ireland squad.
Monaghan has mixed silky offloads with strong ball-carrying, which saw her end up on 52 carries – only four players managed more in the TikTok Six Nations, which is quite the achievement when you consider Monaghan missed the England game.
Linda Djougang took her game to new heights, as she reminded everyone why he is one of the best looseheads in the world. Djougang's thumping tackle that forced a knock-on against Scotland was one of the highlights of a impressive display that saw the powerful prop exert her dominance at scrum time.
Tighthead Christy Haney also made the most of her opportunities, as McWilliams looks to further bolster his front-row options in upcoming period.
Nichola Fryday had big boots to fill when taking on the captaincy from the now retired Ciara Griffin, and the Offaly woman handled the pressure well, as she grew in confidence within the role, as the tournament progressed.
The back-line was also refreshed with Vicky Irwin, Molly Scuffil-McCabe and Aoibheann Reilly making their debuts, while Enya Breen's late heroics in the win over Scotland marked her out as 'one to watch' going forward.
Breen brilliantly finished her try, and then regathered herself to nervelessly fire over the conversion to snatch a precious 15-14 victory for her side with the last kick of the game.
The manner of the win could well prove to be a turning point for this squad, especially when you consider that the Sevens players were unavailable, as they were in Canada securing an impressive bronze medal.
The challenge for McWilliams now is to unearth even more emerging stars, as he looks to build squad depth for the long road ahead.
The Ireland boss has already laid out his intention to finish in the top three of next year's TikTok Six Nations and while that is certainly achievable, it is vital that Ireland use the Summer tour and Autumn Series to fine-tune the game-plan and blood more young players.
As ever, patience is required, but after the disappointment of last year, things are looking up again for Irish women's rugby.
Written by: Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent