Ireland land in tough pool for Women’s Rugby World Cup

Draw starts ball rolling for tournament to be held in Dublin and Belfast next August

The Great Room in Belfast's City Hall, flag free and cheerily welcoming. The Peace Proms Choir singing Ireland's Call in a less punked-out way than the version that screeched out over Soldier Field in Chicago, splendidly sounding like it never had before.

The Women's World Cup 2017, to be held from August 9th-26th, was delivered with pomp and ceremony on Wednesday with former England captain and World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, former Irish captain Fiona Coghlan and Dame Mary Peters, a gold pentathlon medal winner at the Olympic Games in Munich 1972, plucking out the balls.

But even with that freight of goodwill in the historic building, the pool draws failed to find a kindly lie for the home nation.

As World Cup groups go, Ireland’s is a tough one in amongst France and Australia along with a fourth nation from Oceania/Asia holding up the bottom end.



It was also another mark along the way for the evolution of the sport and World Rugby threw their top brass at the event with Beaumont accompanied by chief executive

Brett Gosper

, both of them in downtown Belfast talking up the tournament.

It will be left to UCD in Dublin for the pool phases and Queens University and Kingspan Stadium in Belfast for the final play-off matches to maintain and raise the heights women's rugby has reached since the last World Cup in France and the Rio Olympics in August. In that, there is a clear challenge to Ireland.

Sevens or the 15-woman game, it matters not as the profile continues to grow and in women’s rugby there is still a significant crossover of players who compete at international level in both the long and short versions of the game.

“Our view is that both forms of the game enrich each other,” said Gosper. “It tends to be a discovery game, 7s. It gets people into the game of rugby that weren’t in it. We see a lot of overlap in the women’s game between the 7s players and the 15s players.”

Ireland’s “passion” for the sport is expected to deliver the profile reached in Rio’s 7s rugby complex when the tournament finally kicks off. World Rugby also expects the seats to be full and the atmosphere to consume Dublin and Belfast.

“We saw that in France,” said Gosper of the profile of women’s rugby progressing at the last World Cup. “With the step up in the level and on the back of the Olympics this year, we have seen real momentum. We are expecting a fantastic atmosphere here, big crowds and I know I won’t get into any trouble for saying it – the host nation doing well.”

Gosper is correct and Ireland have to get out of the pool phase to generate real excitement and to reach the levels they have set for themselves. Should anyone forget, the women’s team beat New Zealand before the men did in what was also a watershed moment for them.

Tries in each half from Heather O'Brien and Alison Miller saw the Irish women achieve an historic win over the four-time World Cup winners in 2014 and just as in Chicago, Ireland men's head coach Joe Schmidt and outhalf Jonathan Sexton were both in attendance in the Marcoussis ground just outside Paris.

The challenge in UCD is more prosaic. A top place in the pool or the best runner-up position is what it will take to progress to the semi-final stage. That means beating Australia or France and even if Ireland can do that, it still depends on other result to ensure a final four place.

But there’s optimism and not unlike the men’s team post-All Blacks, the Irish women have drawn a line in the sand following the win over New Zealand and their Grand Slam in March 2013. The team has changed, the coach has changed and expectations have been geared up higher than before.


England, who face USA and Italy along with a qualifier from Europe, have a relatively easier passage. At the beginning of this year world rankings were introduced for women for the first time by World Rugby with November’s edition placing England in third place, USA seventh and Italy eighth.

The fourth team in Pool B, England's pool, will be either Scotland or Spain. The last placed Six Nations team from the combined 2015 and 2016 rankings, which is Scotland, will play two matches, home and away, against the winner of the Rugby Europe competition, Spain, in Glasgow and Madrid with the overall winner going into Pool B.

New Zealand, who play Canada, Wales and a qualifier in Pool A, are currently ranked number one with Canada second.

France, Ireland and Australia are in fourth, fifth and sixth places respectively, adding to the tight nature of Pool C.

Ireland, at least, have a decent run of games between now and the end of the Six Nations championship and will face three Test matches throughout November against England, Canada and New Zealand. It’s the first time the women have had an autumn series of games.

"It's how you see it," said coach Tom Tierney. "It's whether you embrace the opportunity of playing at home or you run away from it a small bit. So it's just a mindset on that. We are looking forward to playing in front of our home crowd. We always do."

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times