Return to Pau looks to be on the right track
There’s no train for us this time as we hope to get our first win in France
Claire Molloy became the first woman to score a try at the Aviva Stadium, touching down against Italy. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Being a part of last weekend’s farewell to Brian O’Driscoll, the greatest rugby player Ireland has ever known, was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.
Thankfully we also got the job done against Italy on what was hopefully the women’s first of many games at the Aviva stadium.
Tomorrow evening we play our final match of the Six Nations and it undoubtedly represents the biggest challenge we have faced since our last trip to Pau in 2012.
But for so many different reasons.
To retain the championship title we need to win by 19 points while scoring five tries and conceding none.
We are forever a team of believers. We also want to win in France for the first time. That’s the number one priority.
As rugby people know only too well, that is a devilishly tough task to achieve.
These games are always the most spectacular occasions and you can’t help getting sucked in by the French love of being entertained. The band will be playing, the noise deafening.
Instead of being intimidated we embrace all the fanfare.
All of us seem to be influenced by journeying to the south of France by feeling we can fluently communicate with the excited and interested locals, only to realise we are speaking English with French accents, hand gestures and facial expressions.
Our last trip to Pau is memorable for logistical rather than rugby reasons. This is a shame because it was a cracking contest which we narrowly lost 8-7 with our currently injured winger Niamh Kavanagh denied what seemed a perfectly legitimate try.
We flew into Paris the day before the game only to miss the connecting flight because we had to change airports in rush hour traffic.
We ended up having to climb aboard an overnight train, only arriving at our hotel at 7am on the morning of an afternoon kick-off.
‘Goose’ [coach Philip Doyle] paced the narrow carriages all night long, not sleeping a wink in case the players woke or got unsettled. The fact he couldn’t fit into a bed, in a cabin shared by five others may have had something to do it with this, but the protective coach version sounds a lot better!
But none of us really slept.
On arrival we were shepherded off to bed and told to get some much needed rest in actual hotel rooms.
During this time our management team – Gemma Crowley and Ross Callaghan – frantically opened negotiations with the French for a delayed kick-off which is a regular enough situation prior to a women’s rugby international. However, our hosts were not immediately accommodating. They had a huge banquet planned and the entire town was invited to attend the marquee inside Stade du Hameau.
Initially the post match party took precedence over our dangerously low energy levels but following some tough negotiating by our crowd the game was put back by two hours.
When the knock came on the door in the early afternoon what else can we do but switch into battle mode? We had our breakfast, lunch and pre-match meal squashed onto one plate followed by a rapid analysis of France, delivery of our game plan and then loaded ourselves onto the bus for the stadium.
Despite the hectic preparations we had an excellent warm-up. That was down to a couple of remarkably energised players like Fi Coghlan and Joy Neville being unfazed by the lack of sleep. They demanded everyone sharpened up and focused on the task at hand.
Walking out into a crammed French stadium is always an enjoyable experience. They have this knack of making you feel welcome without being overpowering or intimidating. Maybe if we spoke French, and understood what they were actually shouting at us, it might change our perspective.
Despite the build up, that game proved to be incredibly hard fought and we only lost by a single point with Claire Molly’s dancing feet carrying us under their posts. As last Saturday showed when Claire became the first woman to score a try at the Aviva Stadium it has become her signature move.
It was a crushing defeat but when the pain subsided it showed us what we are capable of achieving. It certainly removed any fear of the significantly larger French girls when they arrived up to Ashbourne last year.
France are undoubtedly the favourites and are going for the Grand Slam having beaten England 18-6. They haven’t conceded e a try either. Still, if we stick together, retain our focus and keep working hard no matter what is thrown at us, while making use of the space that we do create then we can control this game.
Today we travel from Dublin by chartered flight along with the under-20 men’s squad who are playing down the road in Tarbes.
So we will be well rested!
The game also marks a swan song to the Six Nations for some of us, a new experience for others.
We can win in France. And if we do, regardless of final standings, it will be a campaign we can all take pride in.
But either way, this is a squad of ladies I will always be proud to be associated with.