Ireland aim to ignore off-pitch distractions and deliver on ‘plan’ to beat Italy

Greg McWilliams’ team playing for their first win of this year’s women’s Six Nations

The Irish team and staff form a huddle after Friday's captain's run in Parma. Photograph: Luca Sighinolfi/Inpho

Women’s Six Nations: Italy v Ireland, Saturday, Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma, kick-off 4.45pm Irish time (live on Virgin Media Two/BBC iPlayer)

Irish coach Greg McWilliams could have done without much of the off-pitch distractions this week as Ireland face into a game against Italy they hope could be their first win of the series.

Allegations of misogyny and an old boys club attitude within the IRFU as well as England coach Simon Middleton calling for a goal-kicking change in women’s rugby, decrying the current system as ‘unfair’ is enough to take any coach or player’s eye off the ball.

Middleton called for women players to have the option of taking conversions from nearer the posts after looking at the England conversion rate of eight from the 22 tries they have scored in this season’s Six Nations Championship.


For good measure a smaller ball was also one of the suggestions, although it seems that much of the debate may belong with the thinking that women cannot win Grand Nationals at Aintree. All perfectly true until Rachael Blackmore came along.

Unfortunately, Ireland goes into the game amid the denials with just one unconverted try scored and no penalties, compared to their Italian opponents who have scored three tries over the first two rounds and converted one. Wales, on the other hand, have converted six of their 10 tries.

Those numbers, however, do mean something as Ireland sit at the bottom of the Six Nations table with Italy above them and Scotland in third place, all three teams without a win so far.

Ireland coach Greg McWilliams questions timing of allegations of sexist attitude within IRFUOpens in new window ]

In total the Irish team has shipped 84 points in their opening two games against Wales and France and scored eight points, so there is patching up to be done in Parma by a team that is critically short on international experience.

The view is Ireland have put a lot of the playing resources into the Seven’s game with the hope of qualifying for Paris 2024. They are currently in a competitive place in that respect with a tournament coming up in Toulouse that could seal a historic qualification.

But Sevens players such as Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe and Beibhinn Parsons are not involved in this Six Nations series leaving McWilliams to work with what he has got including a debutant 18-year-old prop Sadhbh McGrath, who was named against Wales and in today’s squad.

McWilliams has made three changes with Lauren Delany, Anna McGann and Ailsa Hughes starting in the backline.

Three changes made to Ireland women’s team for trip to face Italy in ParmaOpens in new window ]

Delany comes in at fullback alongside right-wing Aoife Doyle and left wing Natasja Behan. McGann, who previously featured off the bench, starts at inside centre beside Aoife Dalton for her first Test start. Hughes is selected at scrumhalf for her first appearance of the 2023 Championship.

Lock Nichola Fryday with 31 caps remains the most experienced player in the match day squad with Linda Djougang at loosehead prop not far behind with 26 caps. Thirteen of the 23 players number caps in single figures with nine of those four caps or less.

“Saturday will be another stiff challenge for us against a side that reached the quarterfinals of Rugby World Cup,” said McWilliams. “But again, it is one we are relishing as a group as it gives us the opportunity to continue our development in the Test arena.

“We have a plan in place to play against Italy. This is a massive challenge for us both in terms of how we prep mentally, how we can get up for the game, and how we cannot allow articles by people who are influencers in Irish rugby come out and talk about historical information. That’s up to them but we’re concentrating on developing rugby, we’re not concentrating on suppressing it.”

ITALY: B Capomaggi; A Muzzo, M Sillari, B Rigoni, A D’Inca’; V Madia, S Stefan (c); G Maris, V Vecchini, L Gai, S Tounesi, G Duca, F Sgorbini, I Locatelli, G Franco. Replacements: E Stecca, A Cassaghi, S Seye, V Fedrighi, L Gurioli, A Ranuccini, S Barattin, E Stevanin

IRELAND: L Delany (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby); A Doyle (Railway Union RFC/Munster), A Dalton (Old Belvedere/Leinster), A McGann (Railway Union/Connacht), N Behan (Blackrock College/Leinster); D O’Brien (Old Belvedere/Leinster), A Hughes (Railway Union/Leinster); Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere/Leinster), N Jones (Gloucester-Hartpury/Ulster), C Haney (Blackrock College/Leinster); N Fryday (Exeter Chiefs/Connacht) (capt), S Monaghan (Gloucester-Hartpury/IQ Rugby); D Wall (Blackrock College/Munster), G Moore (Saracens/IQ Rugby), D Nic a Bháird (Old Belvedere/Munster).

Replacements: C Nielson (Exeter Chiefs/IQ Rugby), S McGrath (City of Derry/Cooke RFC/Ulster), K Buggy (Gloucester-Hartpury/IQ Rugby), H O’Connor (Blackrock College/Leinster), B Hogan (Old Belvedere/Ulster), M Scuffil-McCabe (Railway Union/Leinster), V Irwin (Sale Sharks/Ulster), M Deely (Blackrock College/Connacht).

Referee: A Groizeleau (France)

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times