It’s Six Nations Eve, everyone!
The game kicks off this year’s RBS Six Nations proceedings at Ashbourne RFC.
Also on Tuesday (knock me over a second time!), The Irish Times reported on captain Fiona Coghlan’s thoughts about her expectations as Friday night approaches.
The primary concern lies with the lack of team games played in advance of the competition. Ireland haven’t played a game since the last Six Nations. You read that right: that’s almost exactly a year. And with plenty of new talent in the squad, Ireland will hit the ground running in terms of putting their training into practice.
We are set as we can be. We will have had four weekends together and there are some new faces in the squad so it will be good to see how they gel with the side in the first game out against Wales. They are similar to ourselves in that we haven’t had much time in games to work on things so I would say we will be fairly even. This game is always a massive one for both sides.
Discussing the fresh faces to the team, the Ireland captain told IRFU TV that many of the new players have excellent levels of skill and understanding of the game. She continued:
There have been [new] underage teams set up, so girls are playing [rugby] at a younger age. Their skill level is higher, their understanding of the game is better. And then they’ve been coming up through the provincials. Then there were inter-pros, and they were spotted at that, and then brought into national training for strength and conditioning. [The new squad members] have been involved since September in training and conditionging, so it’s been really good.
She confirmed that the development pathways from youth teams to national level are now meant to reflect the approach taken with the men’s game.
Coghlan, along with Lynne Cantwell and fellow team mates also appeared on Monday’s “Against the Head” on RTÉ Two. Those interviewed talked about their training, as well as about the challenges faced by the women’s game and the fact that the women’s game remains, as Ryle Nugent put it, “resolutely amateur”. It’s well worth a look (skip to 25 minutes in).
With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the fifteen players selected for tonight’s game. There’s a healthy mix: Legends of the Ball; hardy perennial stalwarts; and wee newbies fresh from making their way up through the ranks.
We’ll also have a run-down of the XV’s replacements tomorrow, so check back! An overview of the full squad named before Christmas can be found here.
So, without further ado, to the players:
15. NEWBIE: Ashleigh Baxter (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster) *
Belfast native Baxter plays at fullback position, and is just a wee thing at 21 years of age and 5’5″. She teams up with experienced hands Alison Miller and Niamh Kavanagh to complete the back three. But don’t let age or a singular cap deceive you: she began playing rugby in second year in school. Compare that with some of Ireland’s top players who began their rugby careers after their school years. Unsurprising, then, that she spent the end of last year scoring oodles of tries and conversions. More of that, please!
14. Niamh Kavanagh (UL Bohemians/Munster)
This particular Niamh Kavanagh isn’t Ireland’s Eurovision legend, but is well on her way to becoming a legend for Ireland. Hailing from Offaly, Kavanagh made her first appearance for her country during last year’s Six Nations, and in her first two appearances managed to score a try for Ireland in each game against France and Italy. According to the woman herself, she’s met a Boston Celtic, is a fan of her Nan’s beef dinners, and is a bit addicted to YouTube. Here’s hoping she’s brought her lucky sports bra. She told the Offaly Express her feelings on playing for Ireland: “I’m very lucky and privileged. There’s loads of competition there. I don’t know what way to describe it really but it’s fantastic.”
13. LEGEND: Niamh Briggs (UL Bohemians/Munster)
Careful now. Clonmel’s own Garda Briggs, by now a fixture of the Irish team, won’t take yer messin’. (Probably.) Previously playing the fullback position, Briggs joins Grace Davitt in the centre pairing. She’s a one time Munster Women’s Player of the Year, and member of Scrumqueens team of 2011. Keep up the kicking and get that long arm of the law over that try line, will ya?
12. Grace Davitt (Cooke/Ulster)
Stamullen’s Grace Davitt has played at outhalf and on the wings, with clubs Boyne and Blackrock as well as her current club, Cooke RFC. Tomorrow night she’ll play at inside centre, teaming up with Niamh Briggs. A reliable kicker for Ireland, she’s also had her fair share of tries. Keep her lit, Davitt!
11. Alison Miller (Portlaoise/Highfield/Connacht)
Winger and full-back Miller is Connacht’s captain, one of three provincial captains on the Ireland side. The peripatetic Laois woman, teacher and relative newcomer to rugby, starts against Wales on the left wing. Miller’s sporting origins are in athletics. She rose through the ranks of Laois county football from the age of 21, had a brief dalliance with rugby while in college, before she began playing for Portlaoise RFC in 2009. She has risen steadily in three short years. Give those Welsh hell, Miller!
10. LEGEND: Lynne Cantwell (Exile)
Everyone loves an over-achiever. With a record number of caps for Ireland, and representing her country at no less than three World Cup tournaments, Cantwell will earn her 68th cap against Wales on tomorrow night. With another change in the usual player positions, she lines out in the fly half position and will team up with Amy Davis.
A graduate of the University of Limerick with a Masters from Southampton, Cantwell is a qualified physio, and isn’t alone on the team in that respect. Previously working in Ireland and New Zealand, and popping over to Oz for an advanced diploma (as you do), she now works at a practice in the UK. Oh, and she’s qualified in acupuncture. Starting out in rugby while at uni, she’s played for Munster, UL Bohemians, College Rifles (Auckland), Richmond RFC; she’s from Dublin’s northside (superextrabonuspointsthankyou); she’s happy to partake in a pinch of athletics, basketball, camogie and swimming; has been up for numerous awards and has won several (exhibit A, B and C); she’s been nudging the IRFU towards holding Ireland’s matches at Lansdowne Road; and has worked with the Wooden Spoon children’s charity raising funds to improve the lives of mentally, physically and socially disadvantaged kids in the UK & Ireland. Plus she’s mad for a chicken korma.
Did we mention that she’s a legend?
9. Amy Davis (Blackrock/Leinster)
Comfortable at scrum half, wing or centre, Davis is another experienced hand for Ireland and will team up with Cantwell tomorrow at the scrum half position. A University of Ulster woman, originally for County Down, and with a rake of caps to her name, Davis can also turn her hand to athletics, weight lifting and water sports if the mood takes her. Here she is the chats with Ireland and Leinster team mate Tania Rosser.
1. LEGEND: Fiona Coghlan (UL Bohemians/Leinster) (capt.)
Yes, everyone loves Paul O’Connell and welcomes his captaincy for this year’s Six Nations, but there was a kind of fabulous symmetry with Brian O’Driscoll as skipper: both he and Fiona Coghlan are Clontarf natives, both captain Leinster, and of course both captain the national team. Coghlan has spoken of her anticipation of tomorrow night’s game against Wales: she knows they face a tough side but, despite the lack of game play with Ireland’s new line-up, she’s confident in her team. She stays on as prop tomorrow, leading Ireland in the loosehead position.
After Cantwell, she’s one of the country’s most capped players along with Joy Neville. A late-comer to rugby, she’s always been an enthusiastic sports woman. She tried out for Munster before joining the Leinster squad, and was introduced to the national side in 2002. When Coghlan is not propping up the Irish scrum she’s a full time PE and maths teacher. So behave down the back!
2. LEGEND: Gillian Bourke (UL Bohemians/Munster)
The University of Limerick just churns out Ireland’s top rugby players, and here’s another. Ireland’s hooker tomorrow, Bourke is among our veterans at the front and can also be found playing at prop. She started with the national team in 2009, had the good fortune and tenacity to be part of the side that defeated France, and has been a fixture ever since. Bourke is keenly aware of the additional dedication and challenges faced by women players compared with the men: “People don’t realise the commitment that women put in to play with their national team. I’m alright because my work can be reasonably flexible but there’s girls there who have less suitable jobs. There are a few teachers on the team who have to go to their headmaster asking for about 15 days off when that mightn’t be possible.”
She’s coached the UL team, as well as working as a youth development officer in Galway. Bourke is also a keen show jumper, if you don’t mind. (She doesn’t have much time for soccer players, though: they’re just too soft.)
3. Ailis Egan (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
TCD graduate Egan is another top Leinster player on the national side. Her debut for Ireland was during last year’s Six Nations tournament, and she plays again at tighthead prop, joining Coghlan and Bourke in the front row. Rack up those caps! Do Ireland proud! Trinners for winners!
4. Marie Louise Reilly (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Although she has previously played at full back, Maz Reilly again takes up her position tomorrow night in the second row as lock. She first lined out for Ireland in 2010. And how did it feel to get picked for the Ireland squad for the first time? “Shock … nerves … excitement! Just delighted as I knew my family would be very proud.”
Prior to playing for Old Belvedere she played with Navan and with her first club, Tralee. From the land of the Lilywhites, Reilly attended Scoil Dara in Kilcock, attended college in Tralee, lives in Meath, and works as a sports development officer. So there now.
5. NEWBIE: Sophie Spence (Exile) *
Welcoming another new face into the Six Nations squad, Spence takes up the number 5 lock position in the second row. A current member of the Mowden Sharks, her previous clubs have been Teesside Uni and Darlington. In the autumn she made a powerful run for the Irish Exiles against Camp Hill (Birmingham), bursting through several tackles to earn a try under the posts. Her birthday’s at the end of the month, so let’s hope it’s a particularly special one!
6. LEGEND: Laura Guest (Highfield/Munster)
Clonakitly’s finest. A flanker with Munster, Laura Guest is another of Irelands legendary players. Tomorrow, she’ll be the blindside flanker with back row forwards Molloy and Neville. She’s also been a prop for Ireland, and plays tighthead for Highfield RFC. During the 2010 World Cup, she stepped in as prop to replace the injured Lauren Day.
A graduate of the University of Limerick, Guest is a former Clonakilty and UL Bohs player, has earned nine caps, is a secondary school teacher, and coach to UCC’s rugby team. She’s partial to a bit of golf, cycling, swimming and camogie if they’re going.
7. Claire Molloy (Bristol/Exile)
Openside flanker for Connacht, and captain of Cardiff University’s first XV, Galwegian Claire Molloy remains in this position for Ireland, although she’s also comfortable as a centre. She plays her club rugby for Bristol. Molloy spoke with IRFU TV before the 2010 World Cup, and gave an insight into Connacht’s training and conditioning, as well as the experience of integrating into the national side. (Blogging Scrum Caps and Handbags for the IRFU, she also provided a ..unique post-World Cup run-down.) A GAA enthusiast, when her university studies in medicine took her to Wales, she settled for the next best thing: rugby. And thank feck for that.
Munster captain, former Ireland captain, one of Ireland’s most capped Ireland players with 58 caps, and a fixture of the national side for nine years. She made the Scrumqueens Team of 2011 and is described thusly: “The Ireland number 8 is an expert positional player with an array of ball skills. Works well from the base even when under pressure.”
Like Coghlan, Neville with IRFU TV, and described the team’s preparation and the challenges they expect to face this week. She stays at the number 8 position tomorrow night. Yesterday, she spoke again about her expectations for the game, and how she’s looking forward to settle some scores against Wales:
All the training leading up to it has been really exciting and to put that jersey on, there is no better feeling to be honest.
Any time we play in the Six Nations will be a challenge but I’m really looking forward to playing Wales.
Wales is always a very hard tie. They are very strong and play with a lot of heart when they play against the likes of us.
* Denotes uncapped player