Figures add up as Ireland get set for first Triple Crown


WOMEN'S SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP:Now they are on the cusp of a first ever Triple Crown, plenty of inspirational stories are finally coming to light about the Irish women’s rugby team.

Here’s another. Sofie Spence is their athletic secondrow. An Exile, playing for the Mowden Park Sharks in Darlington, before last year’s Six Nations head coach Philip “Goose” Doyle stressed the need to improve her fitness.

It was understandable as Spence hadn’t played international rugby. That was the December camp. In the weeks that followed she embarked on a 200 kilometre round trip, three times a week to see a personal trainer. The expense came out of her own pocket. She is a teacher by profession.

Spence wins her seventh cap today and is also part of the Sevens squad. The men’s game remains a world away but it was a clever touch to have Declan Kidney present the jerseys last night. Simple arithmetic tells us victory shouldn’t be a problem. Scotland lost 76-0 to England. Ireland beat England 25-0.

Level of pressure

Of course, it won’t be that easy. This group of players are dealing with a whole new level of pressure. The price of success. The burden of expectation.

At least there is no longer any concern about preparation. Last year’s long and winding road to the south of France has seen to that. Right down to bag man Andy Weir, the backroom team looks equally solid.

Doyle’s assistant coaches are Greg McWilliams (backs, attack) and scrum technician Peter Bracken – whose career as a tighthead peaked with London Wasps around 2006 – with credit for conditioning going to Munster’s Ross Callaghan while team manager Gemma Crowley’s huge work load sees her also covering the Sevens squad that head off to Hong Kong after the Six Nations.

Motivation is not in short supply today. Victory will almost certainly guarantee qualification for the 2014 World Cup in France.

McWilliams has been with them since the 2010 Six Nations. He also coaches the Leinster under-19s, Monkstown RFC and previously St Michael’s College, where he teaches, guiding them to their first Leinster Schools senior cup in 2007.

The gender cross over doesn’t impact on his role. “They are an unbelievable group. I certainly don’t coach them as girls. I coach them the same way I would any team I’m with. That means you have to challenge them.

“At the start their basic skill level was a little low so we did a huge amount of work on hand-eye co-ordination. I gave them all a task before the 2010 World Cup; they had three weeks to learn how to juggle in front of the entire squad.

“Of course, this group went beyond the usual preparation; some got lessons, others learnt techniques on Youtube. Anything you ask them they do. We did a lot of weird handling drills, from beach balls to golf balls, getting them passing and comfortable with it, but making it fun as well.

“Last year we could focus on the micro parts of the game like offloading, lines of running, isolating defenders and ball carriers, preserving space. This year we focused more on team stuff, so a lot of the individual skills are incorporated into team sessions. Goose does a lot of defence and rucking, Bracks gets involved as well, while I do the handling, realignment and depth skills.”

It helps that Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell and Joy Neville have been slaving away for the past decade.

Extra coach

“I can’t speak highly enough about Fiona as a captain,” McWilliams continued. “It is like having an extra coach on the pitch. When she talks it is always very specific about what we have to do in the next couple of phases.

“Fiona leads them but Lynne also has a huge part to play, Niamh Briggs has become a leader from fullback, Joy Neville is the same from number eight and Nora Stapleton at 10 is a very competent player who has improved her communication. And Mags O’Reilly in the secondrow.

“This season Goose spread the leadership throughout the team so at a break in play there is a specific voice making the next decision.”

The lack of regard for the women’s game means there is no Triple Crown shield to present to Coghlan but that doesn’t mean the Irish women won’t celebrate like there is something to hoist.

This invisible prize has been 20 years in the making. They all know this. But it would be nice to see them properly recognised. The esteemed IRFU committee men would surely agree.

SCOTLAND: S Johnston (RHC Cougars); A Sergeant (Richmond), S Dixon (RHC Cougars), L Ritchie (Carlisle), M Gaffney (Hillhead Jordanhill); T Griffith (RHC Cougars), L Dalgliesh (RHC Cougars); H Lockhart (Hillhead Jordanhill), S Quick (Murrayfield Wanderers), T Balmer (Worcester); L Wheeler (Richmond), B Parker (Hillhead Jordanhill); J Konkel (Hillhead Jordanhill), T Forsberg (Richmond), S Brown (Richmond, capt). Replacements: B Dickens (Murrayfield Wanderers), S McKerlie-Hex (Murrayfield Wanderers), N McLeod (Morgan), B Millar-Mills (Worcester), K Shields (Murrayfield Wanderers), S Law (Murrayfield Wanderers), L Steven (Murrayfield Wanderers), L Neary (RHC Cougars).

IRELAND:N Briggs (Munster); A Baxter (Ulster), L Cantwell (Exiles), J Murphy (Leinster), A Miller (Connacht); N Stapleton (Leinster), L Muldoon (Exiles); F Coghlan (Leinster, capt), G Bourke (Munster), A Egan (Leinster); S Spence (Exiles), M L Reilly (Leinster); S Fleming (Munster), C Molloy (Exiles), J Neville (Munster). Replacements: S Kennedy (Ulster), F Hayes (Munster), L Day (Exiles), L Dargan (Exile), L Guest (Munster), A Davis (Ulster), G Davitt (Ulster), N Kavanagh (Munster).

Referee:Simon Rees (Wales).

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