What a difference a week makes. Gloom and doom after their horror defeat to Spain, followed by the mother of all sighs of relief after they saw off Italy. And now Ireland are looking to finish off their rollercoaster of a qualifying tournament in Parma on Saturday with a win over Scotland that could seal their place in next year's World Cup in New Zealand.
The pressure going in to that Italian game last Sunday was immense, the performance against Spain having been so poor, and while their 15-7 victory was far from flawless, they got the job done.
“We used that pressure, we didn’t go into our shells and hide away from it,” says flanker Edel McMahon. “But pressure is a part of elite sport, it’s a part of international rugby, and I thought everyone dealt with it very well, took it as a catalyst to edge us on and be better on the pitch.”
“I think the same is coming this weekend as well,” she says confidently, but it’ll be a tight squeeze for that top spot in a group where all four teams are on five points going in to their final games – and only top spot will guarantee World Cup qualification, with the runners-up having to go in to a repechage at a later date.
What will be to Ireland’s advantage is that they will know precisely what they’ll need to do against Scotland, with the Italy v Spain game taking place earlier in the day. Head-to-head records could be crucial – if Spain were to beat Italy with a bonus point, then, having beaten Ireland, nothing Adam Griggs’s side could do against Scotland would be enough to top the group. But should Italy prevail in that game, then Ireland just need to match their points total to better them.
For McMahon, who plays her rugby with Wasps having moved to England two years ago, not qualifying for the World Cup is unthinkable.
“It would be hugely disappointing because the sacrifices people put in for this jersey are phenomenal,” she says. “From one to 40, I’m talking about the girl who you might not see here, who are in the Interpros and putting in the hard yards in training because a phone call might mean they’re suddenly needed. It would be devastating, but we’re not thinking about it. We’re relishing the pressure because we want to be on that plane heading to New Zealand.”
The village of Kilmihil, Co Clare, will be taking a special interest in Saturday’s game, with the likelihood that two of their natives will play their part. That’s about 0.6 per cent of their population, which is considerably more than most villages could boast.
McMahon and Eimear Considine grew up playing Gaelic football together, winning an underage football All-Ireland with Clare in 2008. “I was 14, she was probably only 16 or 17. We’ve known each other for a long time, it’s cool to think that we are back in the same team and pushing for that elite performance in whatever team we are involved in. It’s a nice link-up, a nice bit of home.”
Lockdown sent McMahon home from England, filling her time working on the family farm for four months. “I wasn’t idle,” she laughs, “there were plenty of jobs to be done. I didn’t fancy being locked down in London with nowhere to go, so I got myself home to Clare fairly quickly.”
The 27-year-old made her debut for Ireland in 2018, but her career has been blighted by injuries for a bulk of the time since, not least when she ruptured her Achilles.
That experience, she says, has made her all the hungrier for success with this Irish team.
“I may not have the caps but I have been around a long time now and I know what it means to the girls here and those who didn’t get selected, how important it is for us to get the job done this weekend.”