Hard graft and sheer guts has Cantwell living dream

Ireland stand on the cusp of a Grand Slam dream and then it’s sevens heaven in China

Note to Áras an Uachtaráin: any plans to host the Grand Slam winners should be postponed for at least a fortnight.

Regardless of tomorrow’s result against Italy, it seems likely that Michael D Higgins will invite the Six Nations champions up to the Phoenix Park, as his predecessor Mary McAleese did with the men in 2009.

To do so without the presence of Lynne Cantwell would be a travesty. In fact, the President would be welcoming Ireland Lite. You see, Cantwell and seven other players on the cusp of making history in Parabiago, outside Milan, will be unavailable after Tuesday.

That's how many of this championship winning group are linking up with John Skurr 's Sevens squad for the IRB tournament in China. The World Cup is in Moscow next June and the IRFU finally appear to understand the current status quo, shifting the best players from 15s to sevens, is not sustainable.


“If I’m honest,” said Cantwell. “I don’t think there can be a balance. There needs to be two completely separate squads because as amateur players you cannot do the two. At the moment it is a transitional period but both opportunities are incredible.

“In this little window of opportunity we must attract as many young girls as possible to play the sport in the future.”

The union will reveal more next week about their strategy for Sevens rugby leading up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. We’re talking females only, mind. No mention of the male version please – the official line being it costs too much.

The Sports Council funding will also be announced next Thursday when €35 million is divvied up across all sports.

"Sevens is a really young sport, but really exciting now it is going into the Olympics," Cantwell continued. "The rate of development of all the other teams is completely vertical so while we have funding other teams are improving at a rate of knots as well. We need the right support, the right coaching behind us to make that transition quicker."

Transfer best players
Not to rain on the parade (not that an official parade has been organised yet) but Ireland didn't suddenly become 25 points a better team than England, Grand Slam winners six of the last seven years. The English made the decision to transfer their best players into Sevens before the Six Nations.

"But we deserved that victory," the 31-year-old centre countered. "Fiona Steed said it to us before the French game: We've worked hard and we deserve to win but the younger players shouldn't have to work as hard as we did over the last 10 years. And I know you can't compare us to the boys because they have a professional set-up."

Cantwell has worked harder than most. It is well know before the union got their arms around this squad, she designed conditioning programmes for her team-mates.

A former 400 metre and cross country athlete, from a GAA background in north Dublin, the Fingal Ravens club, this special journey began around 2001 down in the University of Limerick. "After my first year in UL, I lost my love for athletics a little so I said, 'right, what's this all about?'

Unique Limerick
"Having lived in a lot of cities around the world I found that Limerick is ridiculously unique in how accepting they are of women doing anything sport-wise. There were never any barriers so I jumped on the bandwagon."

Not only did she jump on but she grabbed the reins. "I was fast so I scored loads of tries. Donal O'Leary was the Irish coach at the time and based in UL so he got me involved. A huge influence was the quality of the coaching in UL Bohs at that time. Ian Costello (current Munster skills coach) taught many of us the fundamentals of the game."

In an attempt to bring her game to another level, Cantwell skipped the 2009 Six Nations.

"It was risky because it was the year before a World Cup. I arrived at the end of the season, New Zealand's summer, so all they were doing was playing touch but I played with three or four Black Ferns at the College Rifles, including Anna Richards who is a legend of the game. I literally pinned her down and went out passing and kicking with her all the time.

“What I learnt over there is the New Zealand ways of playing is not about structure but beating your opposite number, free-styling as they call it. Our understanding of the game in the northern hemisphere is better but from a team point of view but their one-on-one stuff is just incredible. It was a cool experience.”

It’s a big reason why Niamh Briggs scored Ireland’s first try against France last Friday night in Ashbourne. Watch the replay, the score is born from Cantwell’s awareness in traffic.

But she doesn’t remember that. “I tackled two of their biggest players in the first few minutes and both fell quite easily. I thought ‘aw, that’s not so bad’.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m okay with this. This is all they’ve got’. When Niamh scored I knew we would win. The lineout and our kicking ensured we did.”

So, pick up a Grand Slam tomorrow and off to China next week. “It is difficult being an amateur player because we are juggling three huge things in your life – 15s, sevens and your job."

She laughs at how ridiculous it all sounds. “But it’s just incredible.”