While there is still a long road left to travel on the basis of their display against Wales last weekend, John McKee is confident the Ireland women’s rugby team can eventually get to a point where they are competing with the top sides in the international game.
Despite the presence of several players in their match day squad who are now under full-time contracts with the IRFU, Ireland were on the receiving end of a 31-5 reversal to Wales in the opening round of the Women’s Six Nations at Cardiff Arms Park last Saturday. Their opponents had a similar set-up coming into the 2022 Championship when 12 players within Ioan Cunningham’s selection for the tournament were on professional deals.
The Welsh Rugby Union significantly ramped up its commitment to women’s rugby for this year, and Cunningham is now in a position to call upon 25 players who are on full-time contracts with the union.
The IRFU isn’t yet at this stage with its women’s programme, but McKee believes the right processes are in place for Ireland to progress up the ladder.
“I think we’ve got a very interesting mix of players here. We’ve got quite a strong core, experienced group, who can compete with anyone in the Six Nations. We’ve got, to me, a very exciting young group coming through that are learning every day. They have learned massively since the weekend,” the Ireland senior coach remarked at a press conference in the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on Tuesday.
“To put a time frame on it [when Ireland will be back to their competitive best], you can’t, but I’ve got a lot of faith in what I’ve seen since I’ve been here. In the processes that are coming through and in the young players that are coming through, and the environment that they’re training in. That the process can be accelerated and then develop a match programme around that.
“There has already been talk about maybe playing some extra games in the summer. Because the more they play at the highest level, the faster their development will be. It’s not just about being in a programme here and not playing much high-level rugby. It’s about complementing the programmes here with a level of rugby that they can play.”
Although last Saturday’s reversal leaves them in a difficult position, McKee insisted Ireland aren’t out of the running for a top-three spot in the 2023 Championship.
In order to reach the top tier of the new WXV tournament, which is set to get under way this autumn, a top-half finish in this year’s Six Nations is required. A tough test awaits them against a highly rated French outfit at Musgrave Park this Saturday, but the former Connacht men’s assistant coach feels a strong performance in Cork can help to bolster their prospects.
“It would be a great achievement if we could do that and it is certainly a goal of this team [to finish in the top three]. Despite the result on the weekend, I think the Six Nations is still very open. For us, that’s a nice goal to have in the whole big picture, but we’ve got to focus on each game. If we win on Saturday in Cork, it puts us in a good position,” McKee added.
“That’s what we need to focus on and not be in a situation where we’re trying to chase games at the end or watching other teams to see how they go. Our destination is in our hands and what’s in our hands now is how we prepare, firstly for Saturday and secondly how we perform on the day.”