Today in Belfast marks the end for a special group of Irish players.
After the seventh place play-off against Wales, many of the 30-somethings are expected to retire. They remain iron-willed to this bittersweet finish.
Ruth O’Reilly has already played her last game for Ireland. First capped in 2012, she has been part of the set-up much longer. This World Cup was to be the Tralee lady’s reward after 15 years of sacrifice and toil.
“Truthy Ruthy is what they call me,” O’Reilly begins, speaking from her Galway home having left camp last week with injury.
Unvarnished, here’s her version of events.
“Every so often you have to remind yourself this is what we do for fun! One of the worst days was a Saturday when we were training in the Institute of Sport and the rain was coming in sideways. Tom [Tierney] was coaching us on his own. Anyway, he had us absolutely killing ourselves running and doing ‘burpies’ but at the end of it we had smiles on our faces, because all of us got through it . . . well, we all cried but no one completely lost it!
"It is a really special group of people. Genuinely, the highs of winning that Six Nations in Scotland or running around Donnybrook after the French game [in February, those couple of minutes of elation . . . and the craic that we would have together!
“The majority of us are all on the same wavelength looking at what was happening outside our control.”
It always seemed a struggle for the women to play rugby for Ireland but the overnight train from Paris to Pau in 2012 put them firmly under the media spotlight.
“The train issue was a f**k up and got plenty of publicity at the time but we thought ‘Okay, they’ll start taking us more seriously now.’ We had a great game down in Pau that day. Came pretty damn close to winning.”
A year later Fiona Coghlan captained Ireland to the Grand Slam.
"The players were all but professional in how they approached everything," explains O'Reilly. "You know the likes of Lynne Cantwell. An absolute rugby genius on every level. It's almost a shame for her that she happened to be in a female body because she would have been a powerhouse in rugby only she happened to be a woman.
“The professional attitude is an etiquette most of this team still have but it is something that is being slowly eroded.”
“Because we are all in this unbalanced relationship. But we all want to play for our country. We know the joy that that can bring. It is like a drug. Once you’ve experienced it you want more, you want to push yourself but you are at the mercy of other people’s opinions all the time.”
Their concern has always been how much the IRFU really care about the women’s game?
“Yeah, how much of a shit do they give? That goes down to club level. I am highly involved with Galwegians. I’ve been highly involved in the committee structures of Connacht rugby. You are looking to get things done, to grow the game and the attitude is ‘Of course, we are really supportive of our women’s team, sure we have one’.’
“Well done lads. To be honest, I prefer them staying out of our business because we run our side of the club, our team our way.”
After the Grand Slam and before the 2014 World Cup in Marcousiss the players felt compelled to stand up to the union – a united front led by Coghlan and Cantwell – stating their preparations would be diluted by switching players into the Sevens programme. They got their way and went on to claim the most remarkable scalp in Irish rugby history by beating then world champions New Zealand.
With the arrival of David Nucifora, in April 2014 as the IRFU's first high performance director, there also came Anthony Eddy as the director of Sevens and women's rugby.
“Prior to that there was no appetite for Sevens,” O’Reilly says. “To be honest there isn’t an appetite for Sevens in Ireland even now.”
Ireland's former coach Philip Doyle and assistant Greg McWilliams were not asked to stay on despite leading Ireland to the World Cup semi-final. In their place, four months later, Tierney got the job in a full-time capacity.
“Tom, to be fair, came in with a very positive and inclusive approach,” says O’Reilly. “But because he came so late, at Christmas before the Six Nations, he didn’t have time to throw out the baby with the bath water so he worked with what he had.”
Ireland won the 2015 Six Nations.
“Tom wasn’t known to me. I heard rumblings about his time with Cork Con and people were saying ‘Oh, this is a bit odd.’ To me he seemed a decent coach.
“We were winning, that always helps. His approach was very simple but it was effective for what we were playing against. There was always talk about evolving but time kept slipping by and things didn’t change.
“We have had more hours of training,” O’Reilly continues. “Tom came out to the provinces and did more sessions with our groups in Galway, Dublin and Limerick. Quick hands. Passing drills. Similar to what Greg and Goose did but they were doing it in a very concentrated period just before the 2014 World Cup. But because we were doing it in little pockets and not as a big group, the understanding of how far we can push each other in terms of our skill level never happened.
“Tom is not big on set piece work so lineout and scrums got minimal attention.”
What was happening at training?
“We were doing a lot of fitness and that has shown over our performances. Tom focused on starter plays.”
What previously made this Ireland team so successful, besides raw talent, was their spirit but the Sevens (who are professional) and non-Sevens players seem to be at odds with each other.
“I don’t think we can level it entirely at the Sevens-15s divide,” says O’Reilly. “A lot of it was the approach the guys took to developing us as players.”
Training sessions entered the unfamiliar realm of one-upmanship.
“Some of us were mature enough not to do this but there were certainly players, just to survive, who ended up having to do that.
“There were a group of about 12 or so players around from the year dot and it went against every grain in our bodies to see this happening.
“Also, because we are strong women you can’t just tell us ‘Do that’. Well, you can and we probably will do it but we will come back to you afterwards, ‘Why, what’s the end goal?’ I know many coaches who have struggled with the change from coaching men and boys to girls and women. Especially because women tend to be older and more mature when they come to rugby.
“Initially, Tom and Deccie [O’Brien] dealt with that quite well. As much as it drives Deccie scatty he does take the time to explain things.”
In February, the week before the French game, Eddy redirected three players – Hannah Tyrrell, Ali Miller and Sene Naoupu – from the Six Nations squad to the Sevens circuit in Las Vegas.
“The way Tom told it, and we can only believe him, is that he found out in a similar manner to us.”
Yet Eddy, appearing for an explanatory press conference, said: "This was part of the high performance plan made several months ago and Tom was well aware of it, he is fine with it and fully understands it."
O’Reilly: “Tom he made us all feel that week that we had been hard done by – him as much as us. That’s what managed to produce the performance that day. We were all trying to prove a point.”
Ireland beat France 13-10.
“But the result actually had the opposite effect as the guys could feel their decision was vindicated. This was a shame as it was the very thing we didn’t want to happen but at the same time we were not going to let France get the better of us because we were suddenly missing three players. We are bigger than that.
“To me, Tom lost us then. What he said out to the public and what he said to us internally were very different. I understand he has to toe the party line but I thought he could have stood up for us more.”
Fearing a collapse at the World Cup six months later, the senior players brought their grievances to the management.
“We put together a really comprehensive feedback document after the Six Nations and our player group went to management with it. Simple things. The lack of leadership. The fact we weren’t getting decent feedback in terms of how we could improve our performance. The physio cover. Not being told schedules in time to adequately prepare time off work. It was all the stuff that seriously impacted and bothered players. The fact that Sevens players were getting paid for being in a camp and most of us were not.”
“Communication is one of their major problems. You hear things through the grapevine. Even about us getting paid [compensation] for this World Cup. We only heard about it officially at the camp in Fota Island a week before the World Cup. If I had known that I could have made a decision – ‘Okay, I can take unpaid leave for August and use my holidays in July, which means I can be really focused on my training and my recovery and be fresh going into the World Cup.’ Instead it was panic, train, recovery, train, work, work, work – try and be a decent employee – and instead go into the World Cup absolutely knackered.
“It seems like they never get things signed off until the very last minute.”
What about the fitness of Niamh Briggs?
“God love her,” O’Reilly replies. “The dynamic between Niamh and management and Niamh and the squad has been an issue for quite some time. I think with this injury and her inability to participate in the training the rest of us were doing made that even harder. I can understand some of the rationale behind not pulling her sooner than they did.
“The arse would have fallen out of a lot of stuff in the run up to the World Cup had she been pulled sooner but from our point of view there is no hope in hell she is going to be fit enough to train or participate. No way.”
Eventually, when frustrations boiled over, O’Reilly took a stand.
“In July after our training camps with Japan, the IRFU had done a review of Tom over the course of that week – a general appraisal of his coaching techniques. Off the back of that, apparently, the feedback was the players needed to take more ownership of the training sessions and our style of play, rather than just being told what to do. It made sense but in July it is a bit late to change the whole ethos and style of management.
“Anyway, a week later Tom horsed out a few emails looking for us to put together our playbook and a dossier on Australia and Japan: Go through all the video analysis, which is a big ask as we are all split up around the country and we were all working and trying to train so were doing this on our time off.”
So, the players were asked to take more responsibility for the game plan a month out from the World Cup?
“Yes. We actually got our act together, on email, got a little playbook together for Australia and Japan but they were never used. Never discussed as a group.
“A week later he was back on looking for us to put together the training plan for the Saturday session to see what attack options we wanted to run against France. And he wanted that the following day.”
O’Reilly said in a group email, to players and coach, that this request was unacceptable as it fell under the coaches’, not the players’, remit. Tierney responded to the group that she did not need to attend the camp that weekend.
“I was in a terrible state. Mad as hell mostly. We don’t mind doing all these things but your week is so finely balanced trying to fit in everything else. After a hard weekend training you have to go to work for eight hours on the Monday and get in some recovery time and video analysis. Your partner, your family want to see you. You are up Tuesday morning for a gym session, training that evening, skills on Wednesday . . . so your time is really finite. Add one or two things into that and your whole week goes KOWHALLOP!
“We spoke on the phone that day and our relationship since then has been pretty dire . . . He had certainly lost the group by then, if not before then.”
There are stories of players buying their own boots, recovery skins, protein shakes – was the squad compensated adequately?
“I have a great job, I am well paid for what I do, I work bloody hard for it, but it means money isn’t something that keeps me up at night. But I have had the same pair of boots for the past three years. The only thing I have got from the IRFU is the Canterbury kit I wear when I am on duty and the protein provided when doing IRFU sessions in the Sportsground.
“I am probably in the last group of people who can have a proper grown-up job and still do this.”
The squad reached out to the players union – Rugby Players Ireland – with O'Reilly commending the support offered to Connacht players by sports psychologist Dr Deirdre Lyons.
“The way they [the IRFU] have the players in the Sevens set-up they are not particularly able to stand up for themselves. Same for some 15s girls. It compromised our ability to petition through RPI to the IRFU with collective bargaining power in any shape or form.”
Remarkably, morale was solid entering the World Cup.
“Most of us knew there were systematic flaws in the structure. But it was my first World Cup after God-knows-how-many years trying. You are pumped. And there was an internal expectation that after battling through problems in the environment that we could keep that going for one last hurrah.
“Unfortunately there were too many obstacles to surmount with just bloody-mindedness. We can’t level all the responsibility at Tom. We as players didn’t perform. Our confidence just isn’t there. If you haven’t repped stuff out on the training field it cannot just come out in a game.”
The recent IRFU AGM put €500,000 aside for the women’s game – but O’Reilly sees no clear long term plan for the 15-a-side game.
“The guys in the blazers and fancy ties need to decide if this is something they are serious about. If not, fine. We will figure out how we manage it ourselves. We will make the most out of it and keep fighting.
“There is so much catching up now to do with the other nations. The tournament itself has been really well-run. What was lovely for me during the two weeks in UCD was bumping into volunteers. There wasn’t one person I didn’t half-know. And all there off their own time. I think that sums up what happened to this team. A reliance on volunteer spirit, on passion can only get you so far.”
O’Reilly is talking about the need for coaching resources at all levels.
“If we want to grow the game in Ireland, if we want to compete, we need to become a professional outfit. End of.”
Asked to comment on a number of issues raised in this interview, the IRFU responded on Friday: “The IRFU perform a tournament review after all men’s, women’s and Under 20s campaigns. Management, players and key support staff will be part of the review process.”