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'There is a point to it - and that is progress, we can all contribute to this'

By Anna Caplice
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20: Zoe Aldcroft of England runs with the ball as Dannah O'Brien and Aoife Dalton of Ireland attempt to stop her during the Guinness Women's Six Nations 2024 match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium on April 20, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

Ding ding! Final round!

Can France stop the blazing run of the Red Roses? Can Wales finally record their first win in the championship? Can Scotland stick to their current form without the mighty Chloe Rollie? Can Ireland bounce back from one of their biggest losses in the competition’s history? Who will take third spot? Who will be starting their Rugby World Cup preparations by Monday?

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All questions to which we will know the answer by the end of Six Nations’ super Saturday when Italy head to Cardiff, Scotland head to Belfast and England finish off the tournament with a trip to Bordeaux.

We might have thought answers to these questions were predictable before the beginning of the competition, but eyebrows have certainly been raised as the weeks have progressed. Most notably for Wales’s poor form, Scotland’s dominance in the lower tier of the table, and how England have been able to reach an even higher pedigree of performance despite being reigning champions for the last five tournaments.

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As an Irish supporter, this tournament has been mostly enjoyable for a few reasons. For example the performances from some of the young players who are working hard to make the green jersey their own.

The return of Cliodhna Moloney after a long unjustified absence from the squad. The return of Enya Breen from injury. The refreshing approach to the inclusion of the extended squad in match days and away trips by Ireland’s new management. A new style of play. A new style of leadership.

For me, however, the highlight has been that in this year’s tournament we have spoken more about rugby than anything else.

In the last number of seasons, especially in 2023’s tournament where Ireland won nothing but the Wooden Spoon, there had been so much focus on the state of the women’s game in Ireland, the rights and wrongs in the governance of the game and a spotlight on all the things around the rugby without shining it on the rugby itself.

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Don’t get me wrong, this focus was necessary and bubbling for a long time in the periphery before becoming the centre of the attention.

However, how enjoyable it had been to finally have previews and reviews about scrums, lineouts, attack, defence, selection, player contributions, coach contributions, ratings, stats and just plain old rugby.

That was, until Ireland turned up to Twickenham to face a terrifyingly good English side and went down 88 points to 10 in what was just 2 points shy of the biggest loss ever to England for Irish women’s rugby.

Enya Breen admitted in a post-bloodbath press conference that some of the players were “overwhelmed by the occasion.” Head coach Scott Bemand reiterated this by saying that Ireland seemed “shell-shocked” by the English performance.

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Reviewing the game is difficult in this instance as it is like comparing Gladiators with Gladiators. One from the telly, one from the Roman Empire.

One set of warriors armed with swords, body armour, shields, horses and helmets with the training and ability to violently crush opposing threats to their power. While the other set of warriors turns up with a plastic bazooka and a hard sponge crossbow.

There’s only so much rugby detail you can delve into before it dries up and you’re wondering how on earth anyone let these two into the same arena.

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The gulf between England and other teams might seem unfair and render the tournament pointless. How will England continue to strive to fill their 82,000-capacity home stadium when a win is as good as guaranteed? How will other nations grow participation and fanbase when their chance of winning the tournament is virtually non-existent?

However, there is a point to it – and the point is progress. We can all contribute to this. As players – you put your head down and work hard. As supporters – you continue to turn up to support throughout this difficult stage of the game, so that when it comes right it will be all the sweeter for having stayed on the bandwagon. As unions and governing bodies – you continue to ask yourself “Are we doing enough?”

An interesting caveat to this whole debate of catching up on England has been that despite the WRU’s urgency to get professional contracts in place for the Welsh players a few seasons ago, they are in contention for the Wooden Spoon this weekend.

A team that looked to have made all the right moves (admittedly more reactionary than progressively but we’ll let that slide for now) to professionalise their programme before Italy, Scotland or Ireland did is cold hard proof that throwing money at a problem doesn’t conjure up a solution.

What the RFU has achieved by designing their domestic league around their professional programme is fantastic. A competition designed to breed the next generation of players while allowing the current players to pip themselves competitively against each other week-in, week-out and put player progress at the centre by building in a cup competition to run for players who are not called for international duty, as well as a Centre of Excellence in each club for young hopefuls.

On Sunday, the day after the Women’s Six Nations comes to a close for 2024, the All-Ireland League finals will take place in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin with both men’s and women’s winners being decided. I am delighted for the players who get the opportunity to run out on the hallowed ground of Irish rugby on Lansdowne Road to represent their club.

This fixture used to look a lot different for the women’s game – with the best players in Irish rugby returning to their clubs and bringing all the energy and drive that only international rugby experience can buy you. There’s no better feeling for a club supporter than seeing your international players return to their club colours.

While trying to be the patient supporter that the game needs I’m tinged with sadness when I think of how we are squandering the opportunity to have our own domestic league here in Ireland that can be run similarly to the PWR in England.

Rugby World Cup 2025 is coming to England. Register now here to be the first to hear about tickets.

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