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Ireland v Australia (UCD Bowl, 7pm - Live RTÉ and eir Sport)
The Women’s Rugby World Cup is not a major tournament. Certainly not in scale. This fledgling amateur sport is miles off that status and with it being constantly in competition with itself – Sevens now being an Olympic entity – it’s hard to see where the 15-a-side game goes next.
But the next 18 days should be loads of fun.
The tournament is, naturally, of enormous importance to the players and coaches. Career-defining for some yet for many Irish players, already being led so impressively by Claire Molloy, especially those who could walk away right now with a Grand Slam, two Six Nations titles and a World Cup semi-final appearance next to their names, tonight is about continuing their already impressive status as rugby pioneers.
As the Founding Mothers of rugby on this island.
And it’s about producing their usual trick: soaring to heights few of the other gender believed possible.
Sustained success is the primary method to grow any sport, to entice the next generation into the fold.
“It’s overwhelming to think about the impact it is going to have,” said a very composed Dr Molloy.
“The trophy tour in itself was phenomenal across the country. Like, I can’t imagine that growing up when I was 12 in Galway – we’d just see the Sam Maguire. Now we see a World Cup trophy. If I was that age now I’d know I can be like my heroes. I’d know I could play for my country in rugby. That didn’t exist when I was younger.
“With my club over in Bristol we have legacy meetings where we chat to the young girls; you can grow up and be a professional rugby player. That’s a reality for someone starting to play rugby now. Ireland is getting there. You can have a career. The Sevens girls are full-time.
You can go to an Olympics.
“Rugby as a sport has exploded over the last nine years. It is phenomenal. The taxi driver used to ask ‘Are you a supporter?’ when we turned up in our kit in the airport. Now the whole country knows about it and are behind us. It’s amazing.
“But I don’t want the girls to think about that until the tournament is finished.”
A dangerous Pool containing Australia, Japan and France enhances the fear of failure that drives so many elite sports people. Add the pressure of being host nation with the unpredictable but undoubtedly dangerous Wallaroos first up in a jam-packed UCD Bowl and the tension is palpable.
“It’s absolutely critical to nail the first game,” said Ireland coach Tom Tierney. “Australia are coming over here with a lot of stars. We are very focused on doing our job, about imposing our game on them.”
It’s also critical that this tension does not manifest itself in individual Irish performance.
An unsuccessful Ireland is bad for business this week. Very bad for driving women’s rugby on this island and that’s what this is supposed to be all about. Defeat gives those who don’t care for or who sneer at the the women’s game an excuse to keep that mindset alive whereas victory, of any sort, instantly creates positive vibes.
“Just the fact that your’re all here!” Molloy laughed. “Momentum is a massive thing in sport and, yeah, here in Ireland we love a bandwagon.”
Australia need to be taken out early via set piece dominance and points gathering (the loss of place-kicking former captain Niamh Briggs will eventually hurt them) but which Ireland shows up remains to be seen. Because there are two faces to this group; when they get it right, as they have done maybe once in eight games this season, they are a force to reckoned with . When slightly off the boil they can be awful and error-prone.
If that happens then Australia’s gold medal speedsters from Rio have the ability to wipe the dream clean before anyone wakes up.
Briggs is a major loss but the Waterford Garda has been injured more often than not this past year. Nora Stapleton is charged with kicking the goals. Hannah Tyrrell is the back up option and attacking from fullback she has the potential to be a star of this tournament.
An enormous help in avoiding a slow start is experience. Jenny Murphy, Ali Miller and Larissa Muldoon – kids on the Grand Slam side of 2013 – have clocked many valuable miles in a backline that possesses a real gem in Sene Naoupu.
Maz Reilly is towering figure. In fact, she’s the tallest player in the tournament at 6ft 3in, and so crucial to Ireland’s main weapon, the lineout drive. But more than that she is living proof of how the game has grown.
“My nieces came to France [in 2014] and they got to see it wasn’t just their mad auntie playing sports but people from all over the world, that all shapes and sizes are playing rugby.
“They have gone on and played themselves. My brother is the director of women’s rugby down in Listowel as a result of that.
“Now it is in our own country and as one of the older players it is really exciting to think we can be a part of something that can have such a lasting impact.”
IRELAND: Hannah Tyrrell; Eimear Considine, Jenny Murphy, Sene Naoupu, Alison Miller; Nora Stapleton, Larissa Muldoon; Lindsay Peat, Cliodhna Moloney, Ailis Egan; Paula Fitzpatrick, Marie-Louise Reilly; Ashleigh Baxter, Claire Molloy (capt), Heather O’Brien. Replacements: Leah Lyons, Ruth O’Reilly, Ciara O’Connor, Sophie Spence, Ciara Griffin, Nicole Cronin, Katie Fitzhenry, Mairead Coyne.
Verdict: Ireland to win.