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Celtic Challenge title race on the boil but silverware isn’t the only prize on offer

By Martyn Thomas
Katie Corrigan for Wolfhounds in the Celtic Challenge. Credit: Inpho Photography ©INPHO/Ben Brady.

With just one round of the regular season to go four teams remain in the hunt for the Celtic Challenge title. But the expanded cross-border tournament has been about more than just on-field results for many of the players involved.

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Last weekend, Irish side Wolfhounds became the first team to secure their place in the play-offs, with a seven-try 41-10 win against Brython Thunder at Kingspan Stadium.

The six-team tournament will split in two following Saturday’s fifth round, as the top three compete over three weekends to be crowned champions in the play-offs while the bottom three bid to avoid the wooden spoon in the play-offs.

Points from the regular season will be carried over, meaning that Wolfhounds cannot afford to slip up against Welsh side Gwalia Lightning in Dublin on Saturday as they attempt to hold onto the top spot.

Fourth-placed Lightning, meanwhile, who lost in heartbreaking fashion to Edinburgh Rugby last Sunday, must inflict a first defeat on their hosts if they are to force their way into the top three.

Watch Wolfhounds v Gwalia Lightning LIVE on RugbyPass TV here

Crowned by four tries from winger Katie Corrigan, Wolfhound’s win against Thunder was the latest high point in an impressive season in which they have racked up 129 points in the course of their four victories, the only team to break the 100-point barrier thus far.

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“We’re over the moon, we’re delighted [to be top of the table],” Corrigan said. “We wanted to get that match and get up more to look like more of a threat, but no, we’re just enjoying it even more.

“Sure, it’s good craic when you’re winning but, it’s nice that individually we’re all improving anyway. So yeah, we’re happy.”

Corrigan is a shining example of the opportunities this tournament can provide young players in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

A member of the Ireland squad that competed at the Women’s U18 Six Nations Festival last May, the teenager is now excelling alongside senior internationals such as Aoife Dalton, Grace Moore and Brittany Hogan.

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“Even if you don’t get to play, the training is class. The managers, they’re all so great. Everyone is so interested in you and the girls are great and it’s just such a nice atmosphere to be in,” Corrigan said as she reflected on her time with the Wolfhounds.

“I think I’ve come along good. Getting tries like that as well is such a confidence boost for us. Even the training, [working on] speed, getting faster and we’re doing gym every time we train which is really helping.

“And the programme is just so good that the coaches have set up for us. So, you’re learning every day [in] a different way.”

Whether Corrigan makes the step up to the senior Ireland squad in the future remains to be seen but it is not only young players who have taken advantage of the opportunities available through the competition.

Thunder captain Alex Callender was one of many players left without a club when Worcester Warriors Women folded in October, just a month before the Allianz Premiership Women’s season was due to start.

“I’ve benefited a lot to be honest,” Callender said. “I didn’t really have a club, so this Celtic Challenge has given me game time.

“I’ve got game time under my belt now ready for Six Nations and it’s a really competitive competition, which I’m loving.”

Thunder have found results hard to come by on the pitch, gaining only a solitary point ahead of a fifth-round meeting with the similarly winless Glasgow Warriors.

Watch Brython Thunder v Glasgow Warriors LIVE on RugbyPass TV here

However, Callender – who has won 32 caps for Wales and was in New Zealand preparing for WXV 1 when news of Worcester’s demise came through – has enjoyed the Celtic Challenge experience and helping the younger players in the Thunder squad find their feet.

“It’s been brilliant. I think we’ve got a really young squad coming through; some international players, some really young players,” she said.

“So, to have that mix and balance between international [players] and the grassroots is really good because they’re learning from us and also, I’m learning from them as well. It’s a really good balance.”

Callender added: “It’s amazing, the environment that Ashley [Beck, head coach] and all the coaches have created has been brilliant.

“I thrive in a really positive environment. I play my best rugby as well. So, when I’m enjoying it and I think all the girls, when they’re enjoying it, they play their best rugby.

“So, for us, it’s just about that accuracy and discipline. If we can really tidy that up, then we’re going to come away with wins.”

Callender is hopeful the tide will start to turn in Colwyn Bay this Saturday. “We need to reflect and move forward for our game against Glasgow at home,” she said, “which I think is a really good opportunity for us to hopefully take the win.”

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