IT’S been a sobering comedown from the success of two Grand Slam championships with a burst of reality as to where this Ireland team is at for this year’s Six Nations Championship.
It was a very difficult weekend for Irish rugby. Wales are a year ahead of us in their journey of professionalisation and it showed.
There will be no shying away from personal performances that were below par and this team will certainly feel like they have more to give, after the second-half performance which showed a lot more promise and flowed better overall. They will be doing everything they can as a squad to avoid taking home the wooden spoon.
Across the pond, Scotland are probably feeling similar as further again along the production line of professional performances is England who defeated them 58-7. The win, which was England’s first since losing the RWC final to New Zealand in November, wasn’t the biggest thing to celebrate in Newcastle on Saturday as England’s most capped rugby player Sarah Hunter called time on her career after playing for her country for the 141st time.
What an incredible achievement and career. She first played for England in 2007 and since then has gone on to play 141 times in white, scoring over 100 points, playing in four Rugby World Cup finals, and captaining the team to win gold in 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Along with winning many Grand Slams and Six Nations Championships she also won World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016.
Hunter only recently surpassed Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clarke who bowed out with 137 caps. Considerably more than the next players on the list, Ben Youngs and Jason Leonard, who have 122 and 114 caps respectively.
With Ireland’s captain, Nicola Fryday, the most capped player to take to the field on Saturday winning her 29th cap, you have to remark the difference. In England, she would still be considered a newbie. When England come to Musgrave Park on April 22 the sum of appearances for the entire Irish squad will just about surpass 100. England’s next most capped current player, and due to take up captaincy following Hunter’s departure, is Marlie Packer, with 90 caps.
So I wonder, where are the Irish Hunters, Clarkes and Packers? Where are the senior players and the experience from the last few years?
Much of the experience is sitting at home watching from the couch. Some injured, some moved abroad, some retired young when they should have been reaching their peak age of performance, some have returned to their careers after years of trying to balance both, some playing as well as they ever did for their club but not “in-form” to join this Ireland squad.
Or simply, like me, decided that they cannot continue to put their happiness, self-worth and mental health in the hands of a union that has failed again and again to show the players the respect they deserve.
I think of the young player who makes her debut for Ireland in this Six Nations. I think of how proud she and her family must be of her achievements. I think of her future career and the hopefully long and successful journey ahead of her.
I hope the same for all the young players in the Irish squad. I hope they are challenged but well looked after. I hope they learn from the bad days and bask in the glory of the good days. I hope the collective lessons they are learning will help the team to perform like we’ve never seen in an Irish jersey before.
I hope they’re happy. I hope that the player can be herself.
I hope when they have the confidence to say “hang on, this isn’t right” that they’re not gripped by fear and lying awake at night thinking “I’m going to lose everything I worked for...”
This weekend France come to Cork looking for their second win of the tournament after only scraping by Italy in a rainy and messy Parma. Ireland have their backs against the wall and will do everything they can this week to prepare for a better performance. They need our support now more than ever.
Get down to Musgrave Park with your flask and sandwiches. Bring the kids. Have a beer and a catch-up with your friends.
Enjoy some international rugby. Maybe even take some French inspiration and turn up marching with placards and demand better for women’s rugby in Ireland.