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Anna Caplice: 'This tournament has been created to close those gaps'

By Anna Caplice
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 13: Players of Ireland celebrate following the WXV 3 match between Ireland and Kazakhstan at The Sevens Stadium on October 13, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Christopher Pike - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

A scoreline of 109-0 is a record score for an Irish team and a statement start to WXV 3. I was impressed with the leadership and how Sam (Monaghan) and Tricky (Edel McMahon) both played really well and hugely led by example. You could hear Sam’s voice from the pitch over the microphone, she’s really leading the squad.

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At 50-0 at half time for them to go and put an even bigger scoreline in the second half after the changes had been made is a good sign that they didn’t get relaxed or take their foot off the pedal.

That’s a good sign, Ireland have to play the cards they’re dealt. They’re in WXV 3 for now so it’s looking at what they can do about that and I think they dealt with it as best they could.

Having spoken last week about a safety net of WXV 3, you could certainly see that if a young fullback for example drops the ball, in a game like that you can recover quickly but then in another game that could be hugely costly. There’s a safety net in that where a player doesn’t have to be mad at herself for going over that play in her mind.

The danger then is when you come out of a 109-0 win like that but you have made errors, are you going to go into training as a player who made an error, are you going to grab a teammate and say ‘I need to work on this, I’m not getting it wrong this weekend that cost us territory or a score, I’m not going to let it happen again’.

You have to make sure you’re still taking your moments to learn and to apply, I trust that the team isn’t going to get complacent.

I thought Ireland’s skills were good, they looked for a lot of tip-ons which stretched the attack and really punished Kazakhstan. I’d like to see Ireland punch into the line a little bit more, they were running sideways a little bit but in the first game in a while that’s fine. I’d love to see some more acceleration through the line, I think that will really punish upcoming teams like Colombia.

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To see the likes of Eve Higgins and Béibhinn Parsons coming back into the squad, I thought they were both outstanding. Managing their sevens and 15s balance, they have to do that very carefully, they don’t want to be burnt out when they go back into sevens in what is a huge year for sevens for them with the Olympics, but then at the same time just as fresh for 15s.

If it’s a relationship that can be managed really well, they’re going to be so valuable for this 15s squad, you can already see it.

They’re good leaders, they’ve got a lot of experience. They were spoken really highly about after the match by Sam in her post-match interviews. It was really nice to see the young players. Eimear Corri, she got her first cap for Ireland at the weekend, she started her rugby career out on the wing and made the transition to second row.

She stepped up to fill Sam’s boots at halftime she came on and started calling the lineout, I love to see that in younger players. Coming into key positions like a second row and calling the lineout is very impressive and she played really well.

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Young Sarah Delaney got a try, another new cap. It’s a really fun time to be playing and trying those things like scoring tries and calling lineouts as long as that’s managed. Yes enjoy it for what it is, play the cards you’re dealt, and then look at how you can build on that and how can you make sure that these things continue to happen when the competition gets even stronger.

I think they deserve to enjoy their rugby in that win, I would have enjoyed that! To take alongside the fact that we’re going to enjoy it now, but we’re not going to be punching the air and screaming out of surprise or anything like that. They need to have the mindset of yes, that was enjoyable, we did our job and now we need to make sure that this is a job that we can continue to do.

What worried me a little bit was last year Ireland used the Celtic Challenge Cup as a warm-up for the Six Nations. They did really well in that because all of the other nations were using development sides whereas Ireland were using their first-team side and they won comfortably and did well. They then went to the Six Nations and were steamrolled by some of the teams that they had just apparently beaten.

That’s the danger but hopefully, they’ve learned from something like that. If you look at Sam and Tricky again, I think they’re going to be so key in managing this environment where all of a sudden you’re winning by 100 points.

They play in the Premiership, and there are other Premiership players in that squad as well, but their teammates are playing WXV 2 and WXV 1, they know the level that those players are at.

They know what’s expected of those players and Sam and Tricky want this squad to be held in the same regard. There are going to be no illusions for them about what this scoreline reflects. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to mean a huge amount.

109-0 against Kazakhstan, a team that have been struggling within Asian rugby and used to be very strong but even at their strongest were probably still losing to Ireland like in the 2014 World Cup. Sam and Tricky are key to managing what this squad will take from it and how they’ll move forward.

Colombia got stretched very easily against Fiji, there were big defensive gaps. I think what that might mean for Ireland, with the way the game has gone these days is that a lot of coaches come in with systems and they’ll tell their players ‘you need to be in this ruck at that time because that will mean we can shift our attack one way or the other’.

Usually what these systems are designed to do is throw the defence into the middle so you can score out wide on the wings, more or less that’s what these systems are going to lead towards. It will be interesting to see how much they’re used.

I think Ireland did well against Kazakhstan, there were a lot of missed tackles from Kazakhstan, but with Colombia, I was able to notice a lot of gaps in the middle of the park. What that will mean for Ireland is can that they use their systems, but also encourage players to look up and play what’s in front of them as well.

The system exists to draw in defence, but if a gap appears, are you going to follow the system still even though there might be an opportunity to attack and win space, or are you going to back those younger players?

I think that will be a good challenge for Ireland, who is going to be able enough and confident to attack what’s in front of them without getting completely disconnected from the rest of the team.

I struggled with this personally when I came from my club team to an Irish team, not so much in my earlier days but in my later years with Ireland. We were very heavily focused on our detail and I knew which ruck I had to be in at what time, all the players did, we knew exactly what we were doing and it was like building blocks.

I said to the coach, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on this, you’ve picked me because I’m a good rugby player and how you show your strength as a rugby player is playing heads up, playing what’s in front of you, taking that space.

Especially for a back row, some of the backs, they’re quicker players, and to then come into a system where you’re told exactly what to do can be tough for a younger player. It’s about building trust between knowing when to stick to the system and when to go for it and everyone will back you. There has to be a trust. What happens a lot with coaches bringing in a very detailed system like that is there is a lot of fear.

A lot of fear can grow, for example, you might be standing in a gap and be too scared to take it because you’ve put so much practice into the detail and you don’t want to be the one who maybe fluffs it up, but you have to remain the player that you were at your club which was more than likely what got you selected for your country. It’s very important that there’s no fear there.

That’s what I’d like to see from Ireland; a lot of heads-up play, a lot of playing off the cuff. I know from watching it myself, especially as a back row, against Colombia I would be excited about how disconnected their ball carrier was from their support.

I’d be looking for a lot of poaching opportunities, getting in really strong positions over the ball and winning back the ball within a number of phases.

There was a lot of backlash online of people saying the likes of; what is the point of WXV, 109-0 is stupid. People were reacting and responding in a really negative way saying that this was a waste of time. There are a couple of things to say about that. Firstly, this is why the tournament has been created.

It’s in its infancy, this is the first year of it. This tournament has been created to close those gaps. These scorelines may happen for a while. We have just watched RWC 2023 where there were similar scorelines in the pool stages.

The men’s game is much older than the women’s game so the fact that these scorelines are still happening in the men’s game means that it hasn’t really been dealt with in terms of the exclusivity of tier one or tier two rugby.

People talk after every men’s World Cup about making the movement between tier one and tier two rugby more fluid. The fact that these scorelines are still happening in the men’s game and now something’s being done about in the women’s game, that’s the really good thing about it.

What’s interesting about the reaction online is that someone might say about Kazakhstan for example, oh they’re not a rugby nation. Well, not if you’re referring to the men’s game. Kazakhstan has a rich history in the women’s game.

I have an awful lot of admiration for the countries that aren’t classed as ‘rugby nations’. People wouldn’t consider Canada a rugby nation but Canada are 100% a rugby nation when you look at the women’s game, they’re fourth best in the world.

I hope for Kazakhstan it’s a watershed moment in terms of the gap between them and other nations has gotten so wide, what will this mean? I hope they’re turning around to their leadership and management and saying this isn’t going to happen anymore, what are we going to do about it and demanding more to get back to the greatness that they once had.

I really admire the introduction of WXV from World Rugby. All it is at the end of the day is more game time, that’s what we want. World Rugby need to make sure that the likes of Kazakhstan and the other teams are getting proper investment, that they’re speaking to the unions about what they’re doing and their plans, and helping them to make sure that they’ve got the right development opportunities and pathways and grassroots.

It’s a big task for World Rugby but I think the women’s game is the perfect place to do it because the women’s game is younger than the men’s so there’s a chance to change the trajectory of it.

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