A new home, the RBS 6 Nations title to defend and changing priorities make for a challenging year for Niamh Briggs and her Ireland women’s team but head coach Tom Tierney is relishing the opportunity to strike the right balance.
Ireland, ranked fourth in the first official global ranking system for women’s test rugby unveiled this week by World Rugby, begin their championship defence this afternoon against Wales. They will run out not at Ashbourne RFC, their Meath home since 2010 but instead make camp at Donnybrook in Dublin, hoping to bring the women’s game to a wider audience in the continuing effort to grow participation and ensure a conveyor belt of talent finds its way into the international set-up.
These are good times for women’s rugby in Ireland but for Tierney the success of both the XVs and Sevens brings its own issues. Ireland will be staging the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup in 18 months but the Test team must embark on the 2016 campaign knowing Olympic qualification for the shorter format’s introduction to the Games in Rio in August is taking precedence.
Which means in addition to the natural turnover of players from season to season, the defending champions must do without three of the backline which helped them secure the title in Scotland last March.
Jenny Murphy, Alison Miller and Hannah Tyrell will not be in Donnybrook today but Sydney, Australia, with the sevens squad on a two-week training camp ahead of Round 2 of the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series in Sao Paulo, Brazil later this month.
Tierney has no misgivings about the split priorities.
“Absolutely not. We’re under one umbrella and we’re very conscious of that,” he said. “We’ve seen how other countries have maybe made a big separation and a big statement of a separation and were very conscious that we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to keep everyone under one big umbrella and we’ve done that very successfully.
“It’s purely down to selection and then because of that, working on the Sevens and XVs games it’s very important that we have a quantity and quality of player. That’s been the driving factor for the last six months and we’ve been out looking at players, bringing them into the training squads in the centres around the country and then having quality camps.
“It’s all built towards 2017 and we don’t want to be kind of caught with maybe 22 or 23 players, we want to have a pool of maybe 35 and then it’s going to be good for us.”
Tierney accepts there will be times, particularly this year, when the balance will swing towards Sevens.
“It pretty much as simple as that. Getting into the World Series was huge. Last year we had the goal of winning the Six Nations, which we did, and also getting onto a World Series, which the Sevens did, and there was a number of girls that did both. So that just goes to show how it can work.
“After the big achievement of getting on the World Series it’s critical that we stay on it, to build the Sevens game, and the clashes we have with the XVs, it’s forcing us to do exactly what we need to do to build the pool of players. That’s another long-term goal of ours, to get as many players playing at a high quality, that can play both formats of the game. We’re focused on both of them but there are obviously priorities, that’s just the nature of it.”
Given the turnover in personnel, Tierney has been happy with the groundwork his XVs squad have laid down ahead of this weekend’s championship opener.
The odds seem stacked against Ireland, who after 10th-ranked Wales face tough trips to Perpignan to play France and then England, both teams ranked in the top three behind world champions New Zealand.
“Everyone’s saying ‘oh, you’ve got France up second and England up third’ but last week against Wales put us firmly in mind that it’s going to be a very tough game against a Welsh team that will have most of their Sevens players back, because GB is being pushed this year for the Olympics.
“Then we’re off to France, Perpignan, full house traditionally for the women’s game in France. That’s going to be very tough and then we go to Twickenham. So the first three games are very tough and it’s going to define how we go, then we’ll take it from there.”
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