In September 2021, the Irish women’s rugby team experienced heartbreak at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi: failing to qualify for the World Cup. It was significant, a rock-bottom moment in the history of the Irish women’s side.
Despite management changes and – controversial – professional contracts, the third round of the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations offered more hurt in Parma, after a 24-7 loss to Italy, leaving Ireland now competing for the wooden spoon after an unwinnable game against England next week.
Failing to get to the World Cup meant that Ireland was slower to implement necessary changes, keeping them a step behind the rest of the teams. In advance of the World Cup, Italy introduced centralised contracts in April 2022, Wales had theirs in November 2021 while Scotland and Ireland both announced theirs in late 2022, yet Ireland were the only team in this year’s championship who didn’t get to the World Cup.
A lot has been said of Ireland’s caps, and lack thereof. A young squad, Ireland’s total caps of the starting XV against Italy was 187, Italy’s was three times more and the experience was keenly felt.
There are missing players: those on 7s duties and experienced players like Eimear Considine and Kathryn Dane out for personal reasons, and Enya Breen out with injury.
However, the lack of consistency in the backrow means that there are players not gaining experience in their position, and has led to a dearth of cohesion and experience in the middle of the pitch.
Italy’s experience playing together and their match experience at the World Cup, as quarter-finalists, showed. Michela Sillari, Italy’s outside centre, was on her 76th cap, which outnumbered the entire Irish backline combined.
There are individual bright spots on the Irish team. Before the Italy game, it was Neve Jones who had made more dominant tackles than any other player in this year’s TikTok Women’s Six Nations, with six and has made 35 tackles overall without missing any. Captain Nichola Fryday and Linda Djoungang also play at a consistent quality standard in the frontrow, and while it was good to see more experienced players like Lauren Delaney and Ailsa Hughes brought back into the fold, it feels like too little too late for this championship.
For the last few years, England and France have separated themselves in the Women’s Six Nations, leaving Ireland to fight for third place. With Wales and Italy’s professionalism and experience, it feels like a three-tiered competition, with Ireland and Scotland struggling not to finish with a wooden spoon, which would be Ireland’s first since 2004.
Despite the scoreline, the losing streak, the fact that Ireland have scored two tries over the three games so far, head coach Greg McWilliams remains positive. In a post-match interview, he said “I can’t fault the effort of the players, they’ve been outstanding. We’ll look at what we have to do to get better, we need to continuously get better, and that’s what we ask of our player. I’m very proud of them, and coming away from home, losing, I know how they feel.
“They feel upset, they feel they let people down, and we’re trying to build them up because they’re a super group of players. The endeavour was there and we just need to keep improving.”
In the 10 years since Ireland won the Grand Slam, there has been a historic win against New Zealand, winning the championship in 2014, fourth in the World Cup in 2017. There’s now also been a letter to the Government outlining a lack of faith in the IRFU, a report in The Telegraph this week that claimed a senior figure in Irish rugby asked “who the f*ck cares about women’s rugby?” among other allegations of sexual discrimination, and now losing to Italy in a race for the wooden spoon.
The determination, resilience and potential of the players will continue, the enthusiasm and interest of the fans will persist, but the story will have to change dramatically and everyone involved in Irish women’s rugby will be hoping that by the time Ireland return to Italy in two years time, that they’ll have just kept improving.
Italy 24 Ireland 7
Italy: B Capomaggi; A Muzzo, M Sillari, A Rigoni, A D’Inca; V Madia, S Stefan (capt); G Maris, V Vecchini, L Gai; S Tounesi, G Duca; F Sgorbini, I Locatelli, G Franco. Replacements: V Fedrighi (for Sgorbini, 56), E Stevanin (for Madia, 63), S Seye (for Gai, 67), S Barattin (for Capomaggi, 68), A Ranuccini, (for Locatelli, 71), E Stecca (for Maris, 79 mins), L Gurioli (for Tounesi, 79). Not used: A Cassaghi
Ireland: L Delany; A Doyle, A Dalton, A McGann, N Behan; D O’Brien, A Hughes; L Djougang, N Jones, C Haney; N Fryday (capt), S Monaghan; D Wall, G Moore, D Nic a Bháird. Replacements: K Buggy (for Haney, 52), M Scuffil-McCabe (for Hughes, 56), B Hogan (for Wall, 59), M Deely (for Behan, 61), H O’Connor (for Moore, 65), C Nielson (for Jones, 70), V Irwin (for Dalton, 76), S McGrath (for Djougang, 77).
Referee: A Groizeleau (FFR)