Laura Feely has come a long way since falling asleep on the Ireland bus on the way to her Test debut against France three years ago. And the prop believes the Irish have progressed enough since then to surprise those who believe the gap to the French is only getting wider.
Feely, 29, could make her 18th test appearance at Energia Park today if she comes off the bench against France in the delayed and truncated 2021 Women’s Six Nations. The significance is that those caps mean the Donegal-born Blackrock and Connacht front-rower has featured in every selection made by head coach Adam Griggs since he took over a team on the ropes following the disappointments of the 2017 World Cup.
A 45-0 win over Wales in last Saturday’s opener marked a sparkling start to the Six Nations and such is the spirit in the camp right now that Feely believes the gulf in status between semi-professional France and Ireland can be bridged if everything clicks.
“I don’t think that’s unachievable,” Feely said this week. “We didn’t get to play France at all last year and we’ve only played them twice since they went semi-pro back in 2018. People haven’t been able to see what we’ve done and we don’t even know where we’re at until we play them this weekend.
“All we can do for now is review what we did against Wales and keep working on the fundamentals of our game and control what we can control.
“Adam and Ciara (Griffin, the Ireland captain) and everyone else in our coaching team has put so much work into us and they’ll give us the tools we need going into the weekend and it’s up to us to execute and I think if we can execute what the lads have put in place the gap may not be as big as what people think it will be.”
Beating France for the first time since before the 2017 Six Nations would be a major stepping stone for this Ireland squad and the belief that it is within their capabilities points to a serious shift in ambition and confidence from the end of that year’s World Cup campaign on home soil, which ended with a first defeat to Wales in six years, an eighth-place finish, and failure to qualify automatically for this year’s World Cup, now postponed to 2022.
“I remember standing in the stands at the Kingspan in Belfast when the girls played against Wales and they lost the match,” Feely said.
“I was with some other girls that day in the crowd watching and was absolutely devastated by the result because we knew that meant for the next three or four years, of trying to qualify for the next World Cup.
“I remember looking around and saying ‘this is us now, we have to get this back and put everything into it to get Irish women’s rugby back where it belongs’. We’re still on that journey and this here is part of that journey. Yes, the World Cup is postponed but our goals haven’t changed. We’re still striving to qualify for that and the weekend gone is good evidence of where we’re at and I hope we continue to show where we’re at this weekend against strong opposition in France.
“So, yes, things were dark back then and it was hard to see, but we’ve come on in leaps and bounds since then and I know we’re going places with his team.”
Going places was not always so straightforward for Feely and she laughed as she recalls the journey to her Ireland debut in Toulouse in 2018.
The excitement of fulfilling a lifelong dream, a sleepless night following her jersey presentation and the stress of whether her parents would make the game after a flight delayed by ice all conspired against Feely.
“I was all over the place. I was so tired by the time we got on the bus to go to the match and the journey must have been long enough because I was listening to the soundtrack of the Greatest Showman, I was obsessed with that musical!
“I must have dozed off because I was so wrecked and I absolutely hit a brick wall between the excitement and the stress, I think my body must have gone into shutdown mode.
“And I must have been asleep for a while because Leah Lyons shouted over at me ‘Laura! Laura! We’re nearly there!’ and when I woke up it was nearly the end of quite a long album.
“It’s funny the things you do. I still listen to that album before I play. I can talk about it now but it wasn’t the ideal thing to happen, that you fall asleep on the bus before your first cap.
“I’m just glad I was able to back it up and Adam continued to select me and it didn’t happen against Wales last week so I’m no longer like that.”