Mission accomplished but serious questions remain for Irish women’s rugby

Ireland finish third in Six Nations by seeing off Italy but structural reform urgently required

Ireland’s Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe makes a break against Italy during the Six Nations clash at Energia Park, Donnybrook. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland’s Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe makes a break against Italy during the Six Nations clash at Energia Park, Donnybrook. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

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Ireland 25 Italy 5

After a truncated Six Nations met pre-tournament targets, by Ireland finishing third, and for all the coach and player talk about “private success”, the IRFU appears to have realised that their efforts to make the women’s team an actual success need to be redefined.

Truth be told, Fiona Coghlan’s groundbreaking group only beat Europe’s big two when the English sprinters were on Sevens duty or the lumbering French failed to cope with a clever set piece and the right boot of Niamh Briggs.

Now, at the end of this hugely informative campaign, Adam Griggs is building a squad that will be overwhelmingly dependent on crossover from the Sevens programme.

Professionally contracted by the union, with a maximum earning capacity of €23,750 in 2019, athletes like Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe and Stacey Flood offered a rare bonus during the pandemic, as the globetrotting World Series collapsed, and their career paths were rerouted to the 15-a-side game.

Flood’s potential is undeniable. If the former Dublin footballer was to wear 10 for Old Belvedere before year’s end or feature for Leinster in an interprovincial series, her acceleration into an international outhalf would be guaranteed.

However, her next rugby match could very well be a do-or-die World Cup qualifier in September.

Same goes for Murphy Crowe, who snapped the hand off Italy with two tries in an otherwise poor advertisement for the sport, if she could be seen raiding from fullback in Railway Union or Munster colours.

The national camp will reboot in June but proper competition is the only way this team will arrive at next year’s World Cup in New Zealand firing on all cylinders.

The problem, at this moment, is elite status. Female soccer clubs and GAA county players have it, but rugby’s club scene does not. On Friday the IRFU roadmap aimed for fixtures to return in August.

Meanwhile, Kim Flood came off the bench for Wexford Youths during Saturday’s 1-0 win over Athlone in the Airtricity National League. As it currently stands, her sister Stacey – woman of the match here due to a constant desire to attack – can only evolve via closed door camps.

Chief architect

Flood could play Gaelic football this summer but that would only slow her transformation into the outhalf Ireland so desperately need her to become.

The dual policy, Sevens and 15s, has always been a house of cards. Say Flood becomes the chief architect of Ireland’s attack, will she or Brittany Hogan, Murphy Crowe, Eve Higgins or even Beibhinn Parsons be pulled from 15s to play in the Sevens series when it returns?

Antony Eddy, women’s director of rugby, made this very call during the 2017 Six Nations when Sene Naoupu, Hannah Tyrrell and Ali Miller were sent to Las Vegas instead of a home Six Nations match against France.

“100 per cent I’d love to balance them,” said Murphy Crowe after her first 15s start since 2015. “Playing for your country is such an honour and if you can do it in 15s and Sevens why not?”

Murphy Crowe’s first try, off a set play and nimble hands by Dorothy Wall, exposed Italy’s porous defence but the winger’s finish was sublime. She is lethal if afforded any space but, as Parsons discovered against France, at the next level these gaps are slammed shut.

“Our core skills let us down,” said Griggs. “And in the week we had in our group the girls were so eager to right the wrongs of that [the France defeat]and sometimes you can try too hard. So we told them at half-time to just calm down.”

It was painfully obvious that that 20-plus training camps since October were insufficient preparation for a Test match. Players need games.

“There is a big 18 months ahead of us,” came the collective mantra after this four tries to one victory which, it must be noted, was interrupted every other phase by sloppy handling errors.

“To be honest mistakes happen and it is how you recover from them,” said Wall, who powered over for an early try.

“Errors happen. We always review it, but we don’t get bogged down by it. Fine, we made mistakes, but we won the game. We’ll look at that after.”

That the 20-year-old flanker has become Ireland’s outstanding performer is an undeniable positive from this championship.

“I hadn’t really played 80 minutes of international rugby before this campaign so that was definitely an adjustment, but I loved it.”

Scoring sequence – 8 mins: D Wall try, 5-0; 28 mins: S Flood pen, 8-0. Half-time. 43 mins: AL Murphy Crowe try, 13-0; S Flood con, 15-0; 51 mins: C Moloney try, 20-0; 68 mins: M Bettoni try, 20-5; AL Murphy Crowe try, 25-5.

IRELAND: Eimear Considine; Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, Eve Higgins, Sene Naoupu, Beibhinn Parsons; Stacey Flood, Kathryn Dane; Lindsay Peat, Cliodhna Moloney, Linda Djougang; Aoife McDermott, Nichola Fryday; Dorothy Wall, Brittany Hogan, Ciara Griffin (capt).

Replacements: Hannah O’Connor for C Griffin (13 mins, HIA), H Tyrrell for B Parsons (60 mins), G Moore for A McDermott, E Lane for K Dane (both 63 mins), N Jones for L Peat, L Feely for C Moloney, L Lyons for L Djougang (all 63 mins), E Breen for E Higgins (72 mins), E Higgins for E Considine (79 mins, inj).

ITALY: Victory Ostuni Minuzzi; Manuela Furlan (capt), Michela Sillari, Beatrice Rigoni, Maria Magatti; Veronica Madia, Sara Barattin; Erika Skofca, Melissa Bettoni, Lucia Gai; Valeria Fedrighi, Giordana Duca; Ilaria Arrighetti, Francesca Sgorbini, Elisa Giordano.

Replacements: S Stefan for S Barattin (48 mins), G Maris for E Skofca, S Tounesi for M Bettoni (both 63 mins), L Cammarano for F Sgorbini, A Muzzo for M Furlan (both 72 mins).

Referee: S Cox (RFU).

Six Nations takeaways

1. The April stand-alone window shone much needed sunlight, literally and figuratively, on the women’s game. Now the Six Nations must guarantee more than three Test matches.

2. The traditional disconnect between the professional and amateur game was accentuated by Adam Griggs, a coach employed by the IRFU, needing a second press conference to explain that Amanda Greensmith and Collie McEntee are, in fact, responsible for the domestic game.

3. The Ireland squad were bonded by near impossible circumstances since their sport was shelved in 2020: “We are all based in our own homes and you can’t see people outside of them but that is how we have become a family,” explained Murphy Crowe, “because we see each other week in week out and that’s just how comfortable we got around each other. We just made each other our own family.”

4. David Nucifora and Anthony Eddy run the professional game in Ireland but, clearly, they recognise the importance of a successful women’s team. Enough to come watch them play. Neither of them sits on women’s committee under Mary Quinn’s silent guidance. Nor are the women’s clubs represented on Quinn’s historic and worryingly inactive panel.

5. Dorothy Wall cannot become the best blindside flanker in the world without regular rugby. All the players are in desperate need of game time, yet there are no club games pencilled in before the World Cup qualifiers in September. Even a mini interpro series would breathe life into the scene, as failure to reach NZ 2022 would be nothing short of disaster.

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