Encouraging signs aplenty as Ireland look to build on impressive first win of TikTok Women's Six Nations
The sense of relief was palpable around a raucous Musgrave Park, as Ireland notched a priceless first win of this year's TikTok Women's Six Nations.
Written by: Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
A week earlier in Toulouse, the mood music was very different, as an outstanding French team laid bare the two-tiered nature of the tournament, with amateur sides Ireland, Scotland, and Italy, looking to play catch-up on their professional rivals England, France, and Wales.
It wasn't just that Ireland bounced back from consecutive defeats, but it was the way they expertly dismantled Italy to breathe life back into their campaign that was most pleasing.
The players could easily have let their heads drop and feel sorry for themselves, yet they showed impressive character to secure a victory that eases the pressure on several fronts.
With the all-conquering England to come next week, Ireland may have been left in a scenario whereby they needed to beat Scotland on the final day to get a win on the board.
Now that they don't have to worry about finishing the campaign winless, Greg McWilliams' side can look forward to the England and Scotland games without that unwanted distraction.
Since McWilliams took over as head coach, he has placed a big emphasis on improving the skill-level of the players in a bid to develop a fast, expansive style of play.
There were plenty of encouraging signs against Wales on the opening day, and while Ireland came up short, it was clear to see the progression within the game-plan.
As with any tactical shift, it will take time to fully implement and with McWilliams' time with the players severely limited, it means that whenever the squad is together, they must make every moment count on the training pitch.
In the same way that it took time for Andy Farrell and Mike Catt's attacking philosophy to bear fruit, Ireland are on a journey under McWilliams, whose mindset is very much aligned with the current trends.
Just as the Men's pack is not the biggest in world rugby, the Women's forwards have had to think outside the box in a bid to counteract the power of the likes of France and England.
The set-piece was a major issue in Toulouse and with the scrum and lineout struggling, Ireland knew they had to shore things up for the visit of Italy to Cork.
When you consider that the squad only reconvened three days before the Italy game, it puts the marked improvements into perspective.
Granted, Italy, shorn of several players, were not on the same level as France, but Ireland were able to think their way out of trouble after a couple of early wobbles, which was another hugely encouraging aspect of the bonus point 29-8 win.
In a bid to test themselves against better opposition, Ireland recently trained against UCC men's U-20s squad and by all accounts, the girls in green dished out a few home truths to the young lads.
Linda Djougang underlined her quality and having played back-to-back 80-minutes against Wales and England, the outstanding prop was crucial to solidifying the set-piece.
Alongside her, Neve Jones nailed her throwing, thanks to captain Nichola Fryday simplifying the calls, while the introduction of Hannah O'Connor at No 8 meant Ireland had another shrewd lineout operator.
Jones has been a revelation in defence as she packs a serious punch for a hooker of her size. And to underline just how good her defence has been, Jones has made 50/50 tackles, many of them dominant hits, in three Six Nations games.
Fryday has grown into the captaincy and having led her country to victory for the first time, the Offaly woman will now hope to push on and finish the tournament on a high.
The pack proved that if they can get the upper-hand and set the platform, the Irish backs are lethal on front-foot ball.
It's disappointing that some of the stars on show will be unavailable for the final two games, as they switch their focus back to the Sevens, but that will provide other players with a chance to step up and take their chance.
Fresh from leading Munster to the inter-pro title at Energia Park last September, Nicole Cronin was handed the reins at out-half, and like the rest of her team-mates, the Limerick native is benefitting from an extended run in the team.
Outside her, Energia ambassador Stacey Flood has dovetailed well with Cronin to offer Ireland a two-sided attack and a left-footed kicking option, which is crucial to McWilliams' attacking framework.
Flood and Eve Higgins have formed a formidable centre partnership, with the latter's clever lines of running causing defences all sorts of problems.
McWilliams has been spoilt for choice in the back-three, where Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe has been excellent, with Ireland Sevens captain Lucy Mulhall looking more comfortable on the Six Nations stage, while Beibhinn Parsons has shown flashes of her undoubted talent.
It will be fascinating to see how McWilliams juggles his resources over the coming weeks, as Ireland prepare for the daunting trip to England, before hosting Scotland in Belfast.
This was always going to be a long-term project and the green shoots that have been evident over the course of the opening three rounds offers hope for the future.
England is very much a free shot, but if Ireland can round off the campaign with another win over Scotland, McWilliams and his players will have even more belief heading into this exciting new era for Irish Women's rugby.