March 11, 2017, 7 a.m.
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Wales Women v Ireland Women, Arms Park, 11.30am, live RTÉ2
Performing the basics well can set any team free. A lot will change between now and the World Cup in August – let’s not forget Ireland’s secretive four-game warm-up schedule – but this is a three-quarter line capable of producing something special.
After their exploits on the sevens circuit in Las Vegas – when Ireland beat the USA in match one before a draw with Spain was surrounded by defeats to Fiji, the USA, Russia and France as they finished eighth – Sene Naoupu, Ali Miller and Hannah Tyrrell all return to the starting XV. This also promises to be an emotion-fuelled visit to the Arms Park following the tragic death of 20-year-old Welsh international Elli Norkett.
“It is going to be difficult, but we have spoken and we’re going to go out there and play for Elli,” said Wales scrumhalf Keira Bevan. “All of us are going to paint our nails the same colour as our boots because that’s something Elli did when she was playing.”
Ireland are still going for a Grand Slam while a third Six Nations title in four years also requires victory as England, who are also unbeaten, currently have a 56-point advantage. The World Cup champions visit Donnybrook on St Patrick’s Day.
Ireland deserve genuine praise for overcoming France despite Naoupu, Miller and Tyrrell being redirected to the sevens tournament. However, that issue remains the main topic of conversation around the women’s game as Tom Tierney’s side have struggled to bring the levels of continuity to their performances that will be needed to escape a pool that includes France and Australia.
“To me, fundamentally, it wasn’t so much that those three girls went. It was just the idea that you could slot people in and out,” former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan said.
“I know [15-a-side and sevens in the high performance unit on Lansdowne Road] is all one programme, but fundamentally it’s not really one programme when those girls hadn’t consistently been training with each other.
“It makes things a little bit disjointed. I do agree that depth is needed, but it’s just how you do it. It’s not the fact that they’re blooding new people, it’s just how you do it. But from my point of view and being on a team, to have people going and coming back is really disjointed.
“I suppose that was probably one of our strengths over the past couple of years: a core group of players, with a bit of fresh blood coming in and out. It wasn’t completely new, like ‘who’s going to be playing this week?’
“That brings a level of uncertainty to players as well, if they’re not sure where they stand in the whole scheme of things.”
That debate will fade with another victory, which should follow if Paula Fitzpatrick’s pack build a disciplined platform and the backs eradicate basic errors.
WALES: D Hywel; E Evans, K Lake, R de Filippo, A Taviner; R Wilkins, K Bevan; C Thomas, C Phillips (capt), A Evans; R Rowe, M Clay; S Harries, R Taylor, S Powell-Hughes. Replacements: L Harries, C Hale, G Pyrs, S Lillicrap, A Butchers, R Parker, E Snowsill, G Rowland.
IRELAND: K Flood; H Tyrrell, J Murphy, S Naoupu, A Miller; N Stapleton, M Healy; L Peat, L Lyons, A Egan; S Spence, ML Reilly; C Griffin, C Molloy, P Fitzpatrick (capt). Replacements: C O’Connor, I van Staden, R O’Reilly, C Cooney, N Fryday, L Muldoon, N Caughey, M Coyne.
Verdict: Ireland win.