Nikita Armstrong captain's Ulster in what should be an interesting season in Women's Rugby.

Nikita Armstrong captain’s Ulster in what should be an interesting season in Women’s Rugby.

There have been quite a few changes to the Ulster women’s set up this season with a new coach, new captain and I think for the third season running a new time for the interprovincials! However I glad to see that our old friends at The Errigle Inn have added some continuity to proceedings by continuing their sponsorship of the senior team.

New coach Jonny Gillespie has had the team training over the last two months and has built up an impressive senior training squad of 35 players and a development squad of 30 and today the senior squad travel to Co. Cavan RFC for a pre-season friendly against Connacht.

The squad, shorn of international representatives Ashleigh Baxter, Grace Davitt and the injured Stacey Lee Kennedy and Amy Davis plus Ireland 7’s Representative Nikki Caughey features quite a few new faces from a pleasing distribution of clubs throughout the province and beyond!

In fact there are 10 Ulster clubs represented in the senior training squad, stretching from Carrick in the east to Donegal Town in the west, and one English side with Vicky Irwin currently playing in Ormskirk, just north of Liverpool.

However the bulk of the squad comes from the old stalwarts of Belfast Harlequins, Cooke and Queens who between them account for 22 players in the squad, though premier development side Malone, under the guidance of “born again” Johnny Murray, will probably lay claim to a fair few out of that number.

This season sees Nikita Armstrong take over from Stacey Lea Kennedy as captain though with both being physical and aggressive players there will likely be little change in the “lead from the front” philosophy perfected over the years by our Stace!

With a massive shake up expected in the Ireland Women’s set up after the highly successful World Cup it will be a very interesting year for the provincial players. There will be major recruitment for the Ireland Women’s side as they start to build towards the 2017 World Cup and there will be heavy recruitment for the National 7’s side as they attempt to get their qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics back on track after a disastrous season in the 2014 World Sevens Series. In-fact the moving forward of the Inter-pro series is to facilitate the selection of the national squads earlier in the season.

Plenty of the Ulster squad have been on the fringes of the Irish set up in recent years but it has proved hard to break into, the single minded, Philip Doyle’s squad, and rightly so.

Ulster Women Senior Squad

Aimee Ellis – Carrick
Alanagh Chipperfield – Belfast Harlequins
Beth Cregan – Cooke
Cheryl Laverty – Letterkenny
Claire Johnston – Malone
Claire McLaughlin – Queens
Colette Broome – Queens
Danika Doherty – Ballyshannon
Emma Jordan – Queens
Emma Rea – Cooke
Gemma McCutcheon – Queens
Grace Cole – Queens
Hannah Kilgore – Cooke
Ilse Van Staden – Belfast Harlequins
Imogen Porter – Queens
Janine Mullan – Queens
Jemma Jackson – Queens
Joanne McCormack – Donegal Town
Julie Simpson – City of Derry
Laura Johnston – Cooke
Lauren Maginnes – Queens
Leona Hallett – Enniskillen
Lesley Megarity – Belfast Harlequins
Lizzie Ballentine – Cooke
Nikita Armstrong – Cooke
Noreen Nethercott – Enniskillen
Peita McAlister – Queens
Rebecca Smyth – Belfast Harlequins
Sabrina Higgins – Carrick
Shannon Heapes – Finn Valley
Shirelle Wilson – Cooke
Sorcha Chipperfield – Belfast Harlequins
Stacey Sloan – City of Derry
Steffi Clarke – Queens
Vicky Irwin – Ormskirk

However with the changing of the guard there will be increased opportunity and the likes of Jemma Jackson, Gemma McCutcheon, Peta McAllister, Shirelle Wilson and, captain, Nikita Armstrong could find their international ambitions re-ignited if they produce a strong series of performances.

Personally, I’ll be particularly interested in following the progress of “FRU Favourite”, Steffi Clarke, who’d I’d tipped for success a few seasons ago only for Steffi to miss out on a season of rugby through injury. Big season for “Steppin Steffi” and hopefully it will unfold injury free!

If you are interested in playing Women’s Rugby you can find your local club by clicking here. There has been no better time to take up women’s rugby, with Ireland fighting for third place in the Women’s Rugby World Cup this weekend you could be a part of the next generation of international rugby stars in a remarkably short period of time …

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