Six Nations offers Ireland women a chance to put noise behind them

New coaching ticket look to begin rebuild against Welsh side undergoing own transition

It's officially the greatest week in rugby ever – the TikTok Women's Six Nations tournament begins this weekend. The coverage is the biggest ever, with every game broadcast on the respective TV stations. In addition to the participating nations, 136 countries will be showing the Women's Six Nations across terrestrial and streaming platforms. Officially, this will be the most accessible Six Nations in women's rugby history.

So, if you're new, the lowdown goes a bit like this. This is a clean slate for every country participating and their respective union. Let's start with Wales.

Last year was incredibly brutal to be a Welsh fan, with their team, despite having some of the best players, falling victim to the lack of support and resources dedicated to their game. They went winless in the tournament, leading to a revolt against the WRU. More than 100 former internationals wrote to the WRU saying “enough was enough” and demanded action to improve performance pathways for female players. About 4,000 also signed a petition.

When Nigel Walker was appointed as performance director of WRU, promises were made that things would be different. Instead of just talking the talk, Walker came good on some promises. This is the first Six Nations the Welsh team have officially 12 contracted players, including captain Siwan Lillicrap and 7s superstar Jasmine Joyce. While the contract details aren't public, matchday and training fees are included. These contracts are up to a year, with retainer/part-time contracts implemented in an undisclosed timeline.

At home, things have been just as crazy. With the involvement of Ministers, Sport Ireland, a long letter published to put pressure on the IRFU, Philip Browne leaving as chief executive, Kevin Potts replacing him, "bingate", a very public apology after two reports and retirements of some of Ireland's greatest ever athletes, the Ireland team would be forgiven if they wanted to put the past behind them.

Now, this tournament is the chance to put a lot of the outside noise behind them. This is the beginning of a new era, post review, new faces, and with Greg McWilliams and Niamh Briggs steering the ship, optimism levels can officially be turned up. Add to that new captain Nichola Fryday sharing her excitement, it's tough not to get caught up.

But, the first hurdle is Wales in Dublin in round 1 on Saturday at 4.45pm on Virgin Media. It should be an incredibly tight affair with both teams looking to put the heads down and get to work, even though last year’s romping of Wales would suggest otherwise.

But Wales are different this year. In their most recent Test match against the USA, Wales started incredibly strong and stomped to a 15-0 lead. The debutants did well, with Sisilia Tuipulotu also making her debut in the secondrow and various new combinations trialled by the Welsh coach. Llandaff North duo Liliana Podpadec and Jenni Scoble made their debuts in a Welsh jersey, while winger Lisa Neumann was pushed to centre to develop more depth in the position.

Just how much we can draw from the game remains unknown. Sure, the return of stalwart forward Sioned Harries was absolutely momentous, especially given how controversial her exile was and add to the fact her dominant runs drove Wales on. But, when coaches ring plenty of changes and tinker with positions and combinations, things can get messy, and the USA punished every mistake made by the Welsh team and put pressure on all the new combinations.

The flip side is that head coach Ioan Cunningham has now played practically every single debutant and has a detailed list of how they all performed under a variety of gameday situations which is what he set out to do by organising these Test matches, trying to focus on which XV will win him the most games.

As for Ireland, this is very much a rebuilding era. With retirements and the absence of hooker Cliodhna Moloney, it's hard to judge how Ireland will bounce back. Given that the current staff set-up includes a born winner in Briggs, taking things game by game is the best way for this team to attack the Six Nations.

Once again, England and France are the favourites, with England leading the way. However, the storylines are really on the rebuild, the planning and the hope that another team outside of England can do the job of building a women's game correctly and sustainably.

Having one of the biggest tournaments as accessible as possible is part of the battle, but the onus remains on the respective unions to start riding the wave. With TikTok on board, the reach is officially massive. The question is, are the unions ready for the after-party.

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