Lynne Cantwell: World Cup can have a lasting impact in Ireland

Ex-player says that better coaching is the key to improving and growing the women’s game

Lynne Cantwell played outside centre on the first Ireland team to beat New Zealand in a senior international.

Happened at the World Cup in Marcoussis three years ago. A story can be told about every player that day. Cantwell tackled herself to a standstill. Heather O'Brien climbed from the rubble with a try that made victory seem plausible. The Black Ferns responded but from one loose-limbed counter-attack they chipped ball into the Niamh Briggs zone. Mistake. The sorely missed injured Ireland captain glided and stepped before sending Ali Miller around back-pedalling Kiwis in a sprint to the corner flag.

It was the Amelia Earhart moment for women's rugby in Ireland.

Cantwell, vice captain and mainstay in this revolutionary team for over a decade, all the while managing a physiotherapy clinic in west London and playing with Richmond RFC, helped Ireland reach the semi-final in 2014 – when she was knocked out against England in what proved her last cap – in an achievement that nestles beside the 2013 Grand Slam.

Then it was over. Cantwell and Fiona Coghlan retired. Enough blood, sweat and tears spilled by the pair of them to inspire a generation of players literally created by their achievements.

Cantwell’s a qualified coach and while RTÉ are cleverly utilising her acute rugby brain during this month’s tournament in UCD and eventually Belfast, really, she could better serve Irish rugby if integrated into the IRFU coaching systems in some shape or form at some point in time.

Because she’s too valuable a resource to simply let disappear into the sporting ocean.

“I do mentor people,” she told The Irish Times from her Twickenham base, “Those who seek me out!”

Her own mentor has been Steve Aboud, who was also recently lost by the IRFU as Conor O'Shea took him to Italy with instructions to leave a sustainable legacy beyond Japan 2019.

“Steve had a huge influence on me over my career, as a mentor, as a sounding board about work/life balance, which is so important when playing elite sport,” said Cantwell, as the conversation flows from the general state of women’s rugby to what is needed for Ireland to progress from a daunting Pool that begins with Sevens specialists Australia in the UCD Bowl at 7pm next Wednesday.

“Australia first up then Japan then France – which will be a huge game,” Cantwell explains. “Australia have played eight games in the last three years. They played the recent Tests in New Zealand against New Zealand, England, Canada and lost them all. They will improve loads because they were trying to get a lot of new caps on the pitch.”

Ireland coach Tom Tierney adopted a similar policy last November and even during the Six Nations, shrugging off criticism as the team eked out impressive results devoid of cohesive performances. "Ireland always does their prep last minute – by that I mean the summer before the World Cup," Cantwell counters. "That is the time we know we can get up to the standard. I just don't know what that standard is yet."

The standard is England. Expect nothing short of world dominance from Emily Scarratt's Red Roses. For Ireland, the intention is to recreate the Marcoussis experience, to tap into the alchemy that unfolded in that Parisian suburb on that radiant afternoon when raucous friends, parents, partners, Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton looked on from the stand.

England are the most talented squad moving into UCD student residence this Saturday, followed by New Zealand with the rest light years behind.

The regal Grand Slam display at Donnybrook last March showed a growing supporter base how good women’s rugby can become. The peerless Scarratt scorched the artificial turf in a 34-7 victory that was celebrated, old school in the Bective Rangers back bar.

“I know you are hated for enjoying watching England play rugby but they are bloody good at it!”

Last month they beat the Black Ferns 29-21 in Rotorua on the undercard of the Lions versus Maoris.

“It was a rainy day and we know England can manage games in those conditions while that’s the Black Ferns major downfall – they just play ball so on a day like that they are at a disadvantage.

“England have kept on going, driving the standard of the game up and up.”

And their domestic game is about to take a massive leap next season as the RFU launch a 10-team super league.

“It’s absolutely epic – they have completely restructured their league. Again, this is England setting the pace. What the RFU are investing so much in their club league because they know it is going to fuel their Sevens and their 15s.”

Each club had to put up £75,000 before the RFU matched that figure to cover the payment of a head coach and other costs that guarantee a sustainable competition. Every club must name 60 players to ensure a seconds team can be fielded. Also, the match-day squad must have 14 English eligible players.

If Ireland continue to make their own structures better they won't need to look abroad

The venture is somewhat contradicted by the RFU switching individual funding to Sevens players post-World Cup but, regardless, UCD provides a shop window for the English clubs to enhance their rosters.

“They are creating a superpower. There will be opportunities for foreign players to boost the standard.”

This is an amateur league but, much like managers in the GAA going unpaid, plenty of compensation will be quietly spread about. “I had an argument with a guy about this recently. He said the women should be paid, I responded, ‘Look, the priority in the women’s game now is coaching. It is really, really clear that we do not have enough good coaches. Coaches in the women’s game can hugely influence the quality – way quicker than the men’s game – because women are sponges and like to learn.’ You have to set the right foundations before we start paying players.”

More Irish players – Claire Molloy at Bristol, Sene Naoupu at Harlequins – will be tempted to play their rugby in England.

"Myself, Sophie Spence and Jackie Shiels used to come back and forth so we were the exiles in the squad. We were supported by the management. It was seen as a good thing because we were playing really good rugby abroad and bringing those skills and knowledge back home for internationals.

“If Ireland continue to make their own structures better they won’t need to look abroad but in the meantime there are huge opportunities for players to play a way better standard of rugby in England and travel home for internationals.”

Ireland, under Sevens/women's director of rugby Anthony Eddy, are on a radically different pathway. The professional Sevens programme is the priority even if barely anyone knows about it or can follow it the way they would other sports.

“I like that there is more exposure to the game and more girls joining but I still think coaching is a huge work-on,” Cantwell continues. “I don’t see that changing at a huge pace. It’s about investment in coaching and filtering it specifically towards the women’s game.

“The IRFU have two full-time coaches now [Eddy and Tierney] but we need more so that they are developing the coaches of the club game and the interpro game. Or they figure out a way to spread their time so the club structures can be improved.”

Improving the All-Ireland League will be a priority post-World Cup.

That's according to Mary Quinn, the only female voice on the 18-strong IRFU committee. "Yes, the women's game is pushing on, which is fabulous," says Cantwell, "and the Sevens game is pushing on which is great too but where does the 15s game fit? I will look to this World Cup to see exactly where that is. Afterwards, I hope we are in a better position from a 15s point of view than we were three years ago.

“I do wonder though. You do hear stories about unions throwing half-assed packages to prepare teams for this World Cup. That is disappointing.”

Ireland does not fall into that category, having moved the senior squad into the high-performance unit under Eddy.

“That’s a huge leap. Way more resources pumped into it, way more camps. Now, the correlation between that and how the team perform is what really matters. I think the girls need to continue to step up as players to match the resources being put into them. I definitely think we can get more from them.”

Cantwell mentions new leaders like Paula Fitzpatrick and Nora Stapleton.

“They have World Cup experience so they know it is a different beast to the Six Nations. They have to make it their team. I see that happening – a player-driven squad. That has me excited about our chances.”

Preparation has been ultra low-key. The way Eddy and Tierney like it. That's why the Sevens/15s mess – when Naoupu, Hannah Tyrrell and Ali Miller were pulled from the 15s squad (as they are contracted to Sevens) – blew up in their faces during the Six Nations; because they saw no reason to bother explaining their decisions, even to the squad. Players had to keep secrets from each other. This group built their success on never being that way inclined.

“In Ireland the 15s game has way more profile so that attracts way more guys and girls to the sport and the Sevens can do well off that,” Cantwell adds before stating what should be obvious: “But they are completely different sports. Sevens players are more athletic but the one huge thing they lack is the body mass needed for 15s. You see it when Sevens players go back to 15s they struggle with contact, and vice versa when they go the other way they don’t have the mileage in their legs to excel. They do need to be separate besides some anomalies that cross over.”

There is no sign of that happening.

The route to a lasting legacy from this World Cup, Cantwell believes, is by utilising heroines in retirement. “I think it would be great to see the IRFU using these role models afterwards to continue the momentum they will generate. Do more with those who retire. Forward planning. That’s what happens in the men’s game and it hasn’t happened yet in women’s game.”