Ireland women’s side eager for action after a barren year at Test level

Truncated Six Nations gets underway on Saturday against Wales in Cardiff

Kathryn Dane in action during the Ireland women’s training session at the   IRFU High Performance Centre in Abbotstown on Tuesday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Kathryn Dane in action during the Ireland women’s training session at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Abbotstown on Tuesday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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“Obviously we are not just small men,” smiled Kathryn Dane, the Ireland scrumhalf from Fermanagh who works for Leinster as a physiotherapist, when her PhD, studying safety and optimal tackle outcomes in women’s rugby, came up for discussion.

“There is very little out there on the women’s game. A lot of it has been informed by research in men.”

Dane was being literal – even the recent breakthrough saliva test to detect concussion only focused on the male brain – but she so easily could have been making a larger statement about the way women’s rugby is viewed.

“With the growth of the women’s game it is even more important now that we ensure the wellbeing of our players,” she continued. “If there are ways the game can be refereed better or coached better in tackle contest, I’d want to know what that is.”

Ireland open up a truncated version of the Six Nations at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday evening against a Wales side that were devoured 53-0 by France last weekend.

The schedule sees a clash with Leinster’s game in Exeter as Ireland’s 5pm kick-off on RTÉ2 is 30 minutes before the Champions Cup quarter-final goes live on BT Sport.

All the usual barriers aside and considering Ireland have played only once since February 2020, plenty of work has happened behind the scenes at the IRFU high-performance centre in Abbotstown, where the team gathers on Thursday for their first collective session of the week, before travelling to Wales.

The squad are professional in aspiration and in facilities but not when it comes to funding or closing the gap with England, France and New Zealand.

Aoife McDermott during Ireland’s training session on Tuesday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Aoife McDermott during Ireland’s training session on Tuesday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

“Yes, it would be lovely to see it brought in,” replied Aoife McDermott, the Ireland lock, to a question about Welsh players being contracted. “I’m not sure when or how that might look, or what might happen around that but it would definitely be a positive move for the game if it did happen.”

McDermott joins a growing chorus of Irish players who crave a long-term plan. The temporarily defunct Sevens game – where male and female Irish players are contracted, albeit close to minimum wage – has provided an injection of pace to the 15s squad with Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe one of five sprinters added to a group that already contains generational talent in Beibhinn Parsons, Linda Djougang and Dorothy Wall.

The condensed format means Ireland play three matches – away to Wales and France in Donnybrook (where hopefully, this time, hot water will be available) on Saturday week before a playoff on April 24th – so Ciara Griffin’s side must instantly transfer all that training ground endeavour into a Test match victory.

“I’d love to go back to the original format,” said McDermott. “The Six Nations is very special and historic as a round-robin tournament but I’m excited to have this cup final aspect, where every game is really important.”

The April window is set to become a permanent fixture in the calendar as, come 2023, it rolls into World Rugby’s new summer WXV tournament where Ireland will be guaranteed more games. Again, this requires a strategic plan and a significant increase in funding.

“It’s very exciting,” said McDermott. “There is time for unions to figure out what it will look like and how best it can be supported.”

Professionalism in women’s rugby already exists in the countries that are willing and able to pay female athletes.

“[The gap in standards] is definitely there,” said Dane. “The IRFU have been great in giving us the resources that we need to perform at the minute. The picture might change in a couple of years and we might be operating on a semi-professional or professional level like England and France. For the time being we are doing great with what we’ve got.”

If Dane was offered a professional contract tomorrow, would she take it?

“My first instinct would be yes. I am even getting butterflies in my tummy thinking about it. From a young age rugby has meant everything to me.”

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