Source: INPHO

Irish eyes are smiling

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An Ireland Six Nations Squad

For the first time in a long while Scott Bemand has been able to select his own Six Nations squad.

It is:

Forwards: Claire Boles, Ruth Campbell, Megan Collis, Eimear Corri, Sarah Delaney, Linda Djougang, Christy Haney, Brittany Hogan, Shannon Ikahihifo, Neve Jones, Sadhbh McGrath, Edel McMahon (co-captain), Sam Monaghan (co-captain), Grace Moore, Niamh O’Dowd, Andrea Stock, Fiona Tuite, Aoife Wafer, Dorothy Wall (19)

Backs: Natasja Behan, Enya Breen, Katie Corrigan, Aoife Dalton, Meabh Deely, Lauren Delany, Nicole Fowley, Clare Gorman, Katie Heffernan, Eve Higgins, Dannah O’Brien, Beibhinn Parsons, Aoibheann Reilly, Molly Scuffil-McCabe, Chisom Ugwueru, Katie Whelan (16)

Training Panellists: India Daley, Kate Flannery, Ivana Kiripati, Kayla Waldron, Hannah O’Connor, Maeve Og O’Leary, Leah Tarpey

Sevens ahoy!

The first crucial decision is the inclusion of no fewer than five of the gold-medallists from the recent Perth Sevens: Béibhinn Parsons, Eve Higgins, Aoibheann Reilly, Natasja Behan and Katie Heffernan. The absence of Sevens players from the 2023 6N squad was one major reason for Ireland’s worst performance in years. They mustered 25 points in five outings. Now the squad can enjoy a better balance between forwards and backs.

This was a huge decision for the IRFU to take. We may wonder whether Bemand made it a stipulation before agreeing to accept his new job. The Paris Olympics come ever closer, raising the eternal question: how easily can players translate from the one code to the other? It’s a very big call. It remains to be seen how far relative newcomers to 15s in this new group can adapt to the demands of a 6N encounter.

Long before she became high performance manager for the Springboks, Lynne Cantwell pointed out how only 15s rugby allowed Irish sport to make a splash on the world stage. Since then the 7s squad has produced the goods. Can Ireland really achieve the impossible and succeed in both codes at once?

In charge

The same co-captains are appointed as last year, Edel McMahon and Sam Monaghan. This is sensible consistency, given the large number of new faces around. But I do have my doubts about this split responsibility.

I recall the Black Ferns having to make a decision mid-game in the WXV. The referee turned to one of the co-captains close by her: ‘Your choice?’ But Kennedy Simon felt obliged to walk across to Ruahei Demant to get her verdict. Why the delay, the doubt? In the heat of battle, shared decision-making doesn’t really work. And in Ireland’s case, both players are in the pack. Isn’t one forrard, one aft a better solution?

Uncapped players

Bemand includes no fewer than eight players new to this level. They are: Ruth Campbell, Katie Whelan, Chisom Ugwueru, Katie Corrigan, Katie Heffernan, Clare Gorman, Andrea Stock and Shannon Ikahihifo. Some, like the first two, made their presence felt in WXV3; others in the Celtic Challenge. At once we see how useful both those tournaments have been in revealing otherwise hidden talent to the selectors.

Shannon Ikahihifo’s name is especially interesting. A experienced native Aucklander, she joined Trailfinders along with Andrea Stock at the start of the season.

Bemand becomes yet another coach to add subsidiary names to the core list. It remains to be seen how successful this ploy turns out to be. How many of them will become regular first choices? The last three listed above are already full internationals.

Numbers

Even with those additional players Bemand’s total reaches only to 42, that’s a whole five fewer than Wales’ 47. It points to different approaches to the business of sorting out the best 6N squad, which is refreshing.

It’s fun to guess what the selectors believe to be their strongest starting XV for the opening match. There’s no harm having a dash at it.

New coaching staff

Bemand has alongside him the following assistants: Declan Danaher (defence coach), Denis Fogarty (scrum), Larissa Muldoon (assistant backs and attack coach). John McKee is retained as senior coach.

Optimism

There is a lot working in Ireland’s favour this year; they can approach this series with far more confidence. Their two Celtic Challenge sides have done well. They have some of their key players restored to the strength. They have three home games, and one of the aways is booked in for Twickenham.

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