Ireland head into this year’s TikTok Women's Six Nations without any warmup matches under the belt of its young side.
Greg McWilliams has put a lot of emphasis on player game time in the Celtic Cup games over the course of five weeks. The Irish combined provinces remained unbeaten in the competition. Selection was based on performance during the Women’s Interprovincial series and no English Premiership-based players were eligible for selection.
Eight uncapped players have been named in the 32-player Six Nations training squad with McWilliams of the view that there is "an exciting blend of youth and experience - these players are fit for test rugby”.
Ireland will certainly be looking to improve on last year’s performance where they finished fourth. Ireland needs to finish top three to ensure qualification for Tier one of the new WXV global competition. World Rugby has launched this new three-tier annual international 15s competition as part of a test calendar restructure.
This new competition, to be played in the Autumn, aims to revolutionise the women’s international game by creating a meaningful pathway for all unions. The new competition will be divided into tree tiers with WXV 1 made up of six teams, three from this year's Women’s 6 Nations and the top three teams of the cross-regional tournament featuring USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
There will be no promotion or relegation in the first cycle of the WXV 1. WXV 2 will consist of two teams from Europe, the 4th place finisher in cross regional tournament and one team from either Oceania, Asia or Africa. The 6th place team at the end of the WXV 2 competition will be relegated to WXV 3. WXV 3 teams will consist of two from Europe, one from Asia, one from Oceania, one from Africa and one from South America. The group winner of WXV 3 will be promoted to WXV 2.
Bottom line? Ireland need to be playing tier one rugby. All tiers will be played in a cross-pool format as a standalone competition and in one location for each tier. To become one of the best teams you need to be playing the world's best on a regular basis. WXV 1 will provide this opportunity, but qualification is vitally important for the growth of the women’s international game in this country.
A repeat of last year's 6 Nations finish would see Ireland play WXV 2 rugby next year. The schedule sees both France and England travelling to Musgrave Park this time. With this being the case, Ireland will have to target three away wins against Wales, Italy and Scotland to secure a top three finish and WXV 1 rugby next year.
Amber McLachlan will referee the opener in Wales, a straight-talking, vocal referee. McLachlan has a clear viewpoint on the breakdown – if you fall on the wrong side or slow the ball down in any way while getting to your feet, you’ll be penalised. This is something I’d be using to my advantage as an Irish player. Show a good picture in your own tackle and bounce to your feet back into the line and highlight through Fryday, the captain, that Wales are slowing the ball down. Even just planting the seed of doubt in a referee’s mind about the opposition's discipline can help with some 50/50 decisions. You need the rub of the green to help you on your way.
Saturday will also mark the end of an era with England's Sarah Hunter, the most capped women’s player of all time, retiring from international rugby. Hunter announced this week that she will retire after the first round of this year’s championship, at home to Scotland in Newcastle, which is Hunter's home turf as she was born in North Shields.
As a player, there is something special about going out on your own terms, on home soil and in front of friends and family. Hunter has had an illustrious playing career spanning 16 seasons with England rugby. Red Roses captain since 2015, Hunter's accolades include 10 Six Nations Championships, nine Grand Slams, one World Cup title in 2014, 2016 Women’s World Player of the Year and a whopping 141 international caps. I was fortunate to meet her many times both as an opponent but also on captain duties at the annual launch of the Women’s 6 nations.
2018 was my very first captain's launch, and I felt like a real fish out of water and well outside my familiar comfort zone. It is a daunting experience standing in front of the cameras for the first time, fielding all sorts of media queries and Sarah could see the fear in my face and made it her business to make me feel right at ease. What initially seemed like a daunting experience quickly turned into an enjoyable one. I want to wish Sarah Hunter the best on her retirement and thank her for everything she has done for the women’s game. All I can say from experience is retirement is a really exciting time where you can aim for new challenges but also enjoy some well overdue down time.