I think that people need to catch a breath and remember where this Irish Women’s side have come from as we look forward to the possibility of two of the biggest games in their history.
Prior to the 2010 World Cup Ireland had just about got their win ratio into the 50% hitting the then all time high of 53% in 2009. With home victories against Italy, Wales and Scotland in the 2010 Six Nations and defeats of USA, Kazakhstan and Scotland in the 2010 World Cup they pushed the win ration up to 67% but were still losing the games that mattered with a 40 – 3 reversal to the Americans and a 27 – 0 drubbing by England. However their seventh place finish was something to build on.
Unfortunately the IRFU sat on their hands while the rest of the Women’s leading International sides expanded their squads and increased their resources. Despite having a talented side, most of the current squad were in or around the team, Ireland were falling further behind, let down time and again by the powers that be.
In 2011 they battled to narrow home defeat by England and France in the Six Nations, losing by two points and one point respectively and by the end of the 2012 Six Nations Ireland had slumped to a 50% win ratio over the two years after the World Cup. However, in my opinion, those two defeats in the 2012 Six Nations were instrumental in changing the face of Irish Women’s Rugby.
The first match of that series was against France in Pau, a game that generated so much negative publicity for the IRFU that they had to change. The cause of the outcry was the disastrous 17 hour journey the team had to endure before the game, arriving in Pau at 7:00am the morning of the match.
In the end Ireland lost 8 – 7 in a game that they really should have won but the national protest at the mistreatment of an international side forced the IRFU to smarten up their act and provide more tangible support for the Women’s game. Increased travel days and additional coaches and support staff has resulted but there is still a way to go with none, I believe, of the posts being full time.
The second defining match was the last game of that series, against England in Esher. Ireland went into that game with a Triple Crown and an outside chance of the championship on the line. Despite a valiant effort, going into the break at 6 – 6, they ended up losing 23 – 6 to an English side unofficially ranked as No. 1 in the World at that time. It was a hard, but fair, game with England thoroughly deserving of their win, but it was watching the English side rush off, no doubt in celebration more than anything else, to the Men’s International at Twickenham to parade the Six Nations Trophy, that lives long in the memory of the Irish players involved that day.
From that point Ireland produced a remarkable run, winning their next seven games, picking up the 2013 Six Nations Grand Slam and pushing their win ratio to 87%, after their win against Kazakhstan. In their last 15 matches they have lost only to England at Twickenham and France in Pau, and in both those games they lost by a score, and of course they have beaten the current World Champions along the way!
England and France can thank Ireland’s improving form for their own appearance in the World Cup semi finals. Three strong teams, all near neighbours, is a luxury no other nations have in the women’s game and they have all pushed each other on over the last three years and each has picked up a Grand Slam in that period.
However Ireland are the team on the rise, memories of perceived slights and uneven resources has driven these women to take full advantage of their improved set up like no other set of players. Their rise has been truly remarkable and is testament to a truly talented set of players. However the sometimes rocky road that they have travelled has produced, in my opinion, the most rounded squad in the last four. Hopefully they will still carry that sense of injustice that has driven them to be the team they are; it should be enough to carry them through the next two games.