Where do we begin? At the start of this year, we published a piece expressing our concerns over the handling and management of the Irish Women’s National XV team. We highlighted the blatant inconsistencies shown in selection, in new caps and the worrying lack of depth in key positions. We begged Anthony Eddy & Tom Tierney to take accountability for the inconsistencies that were rampant within this setup so that our chances of making a World Cup Final on home soil were not squandered. Unfortunately, they did not listen.
Tierney & Eddy inherited a squad littered with talented players across both backs and forwards in 2014. A team that had experienced the glorious high of defeating the mighty Black Ferns, and the bitter disappointment of crashing out of the tournament at the hands of England. He inherited a group of players who were determined to inspire a future generation, and leave the green jersey in a much better position than when they found it. Anthony Eddy and Tierney failed them.
On 12th December 2014, the IRFU appointed Tom Tierney head coach of the Women’s National XV’s team, reporting directly to Anthony Eddy (Director of sevens and Women’s Rugby). Assuming he did not take his first camp until after the Christmas holidays, it’s fair to say he had roughly 5/6 weeks to prepare his team. With such little time with his players, he would not have been able to overhaul the style of rugby that had been engrained in them up until this point. In addition, continuity from 2014 was key this season. Only seven newly capped players were included while 16 players, who had been involved in the 2014 World Cup, featured in Tierney’s final match day squad against Scotland. We won 3-73 and with it took home the Six Nations Title. This season we narrowly beat Scotland 15-22 thanks to a last minute effort by Jenny Murphy. Have Scotland really improved so drastically that they could bridge a 70-point gap? Most likely, no, given the fact that they failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup. In our opinion, this just shows that despite the multitude of resources at Eddy and Tierney’s disposal, they have failed to prepare their team adequately and as such, we have regressed massively in the past 3 years in both results and the way in which we play the game.
From then onwards Eddy and Tierney really began to show their true plans for this team. During the 2015/16 season 33 players were utilised while 15 new players received caps. Only 7 of these newly capped players made it to this year’s World Cup; what of the other eight players? We lost away to England during our Autumn International while again experienced defeat at their hands in Twickenham during the Six Nations. This coupled with a defeat away to France meant we finished third in the 2016 Six Nations Championship. While our style of playing was not exactly appealing to watch we will allow Tierney and Eddy the excuse that they were trying to mould the team to their way of playing and build their squad after their first full year in charge; building ‘depth’ as they have so often informed us.
So onto the big one; the 2016/17 season. Here was the season we had all been waiting for, our last few matches before we welcomed the world to our doorstep. An Autumn Internationals series against the ‘Big Three’ and a 6 Nations Championship that would hopefully leave us in good stead going into the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Although we put in a good shift against England during the Autumn Internationals, we were played off the pitch by Canada and New Zealand. However, is this surprising when you consider Tierney made 10 changes to the starting 15 in both games? Should he not have been putting out our strongest 23 to face the top 3 teams in the world? While the theme of inconsistency and a regressive game plan were prevalent during the previous campaign, it was only now that it was really starting to rear its ugly head.
The 2017 Six Nation’s campaign kicked off with two frustrating performances away to Scotland and Italy. The team displayed an over reliance on their forward play and in all honesty, only for individual moments of brilliance and sheer determination by the players, we may not have been as fortunate to walk away with two wins from two. Then came the story that made everyone sit up and take notice. Just a few days before Ireland were due to take on France, a team they would face in the pool stages of the World Cup, Anthony Eddy pulled 3 key starting players from the squad so that they could travel to Las Vegas for the 7s series. Following a media backlash Eddy came out to defend his decision and during so, even went as far as to question the professionalism adopted by the players after rumours of discontent with the decision leaked from camp. He argued that players were been given ample ‘opportunities’ and stated they were now getting to a point where they had ‘28/30 players who are capable of being successful’. However, Ireland went on to beat France that very same weekend with a performance full of heart and pride in the jersey they wore. In the final week of the 6Nations Ireland were thoroughly overturned by England and the red roses were deservedly crowned champions.
Fiona Coughlan wrote recently about how Ireland’s ability to grind out matches playing poorly lulled everyone into a false sense of security. The team did just that and gave management a decent list of results to back up their work. During their tenure, Eddy and Tierney utilised 51 different players up until the 2017 World Cup, 32 of which were new caps. And despite their constant reference to giving players ‘opportunities’, to ‘building depth’ and to being the ‘best prepared squad’ we entered this tournament extremely dependant on Nora Stapleton at out-half and with no real experienced depth at second-row (believing that Fitzpatrick belongs in the backrow) or fullback when Briggs was ruled out at a late stage. Of the 51 players used by Tierney in the 19 test games leading up to the World Cup only 2 featured in every game – Egan and Fitzpatrick. Nine right-wingers were utilised, only three made it to a World Cup. Sene Naoupu is the only player capped by Tierney to feature in every tournament he has been at the helm for; 3 Six Nations, 2 Autumn Series and a World Cup. Did the constant chopping and changing allow the key combinations to gel?
Fourteen players capped by Eddy & Tierney were included in the original World Cup squad. This increased to 15 with the late call up of Van Staden. The average number of caps per player here was seven but six players had less than five caps. With this in mind, surely a summer test series would have been appropriate in the build up to the World Cup.
In addition, what of the players dropped from the squad? A player contacted us recently to inform us that, upon being cut from the squad a number of months ago, players were advised that they could request feedback from management or seek a one-on-one regarding the matter. However, as of this week they have yet to receive a response. While communication has never been either man’s strong point, they failed to communicate effectively to the team re the ‘Las Vegas 3’ or Tierney advising Peter O’Reilly of the Sunday Times they would play Four Tests Matches before the World Cup only for this to be refuted by Eddy and put down to a communication breakdown, how does this add up?
And what of our post 6 Nations build up to the World Cup? We can’t really believe that two uncapped friendlies against Japan behind closed doors, or a training match with Spain put us in a position to be the ‘best prepared squad’ heading into our World Cup campaign. France turned semi-pro after the Six Nations and Australia took part in a summer series against England, New Zealand and Canada. Should we not have aimed for more? Now this is not the only thing we found questionable about our lead up to this World Cup. In an interview with the Irish Independent Louise Galvin stated that she ‘got the phone call from Anthony Eddy’ advising her that she had been called up into the World Cup squad in place of the injured Niamh Briggs. Why would Anthony Eddy be making this call when Tom Tierney is the supposed head coach? This leads to the question, who is actually in charge? We also found it very peculiar that having lost their Captain Niamh Briggs to injury management decided to name a new captain in Claire Molloy as opposed to sticking with Paula Fitzpatrick; the player who led the team with distinction through the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations in Briggs’ absence. Molloy is a fine captain, she led by example throughout the World Cup campaign and has been a great role model for the younger generation. We just find it strange that the establishment would look to instigate more change a week out from the start of the tournament.
So onto our World Cup campaign. Having squeezed through the opening two games against Australia and Japan we were found wanting against France. Again we would echo Coughlan’s comments about grinding out wins. While Tierney stated in his post-match interview against France with RTE that the ‘game got away’ from them the truth of the matter is that we were never in reach in the first place. It was determination, resilience and the sheer raw ability of the players that ensured we did not suffer humiliating defeats to Japan or Australia. Against the mightily talented French our resilience, which Tierney speaks so often about, was not going to get us over the line.
Players can only do on the pitch what their coaches have them practice on the training ground and, based on what we have seen in the pool stages, Tierney and Eddy did not equip their team with the tools to perform. While we have no doubt the players will take responsibility for handling errors and missed tackles, we have to question how a team has gone so far backwards in just 3 years. With roughly 80 missed tackles in three pool games, surely someone has to question the defensive structure adopted. Moreover, what of our attacking play? We relied heavily on our forwards, and while two tries came from our backline (Muldoon & Miller) in the group stages both tries came from close, tight play. What happened to the expansive backline play we know this team is capable of playing? Who can forget the counter attacking rugby that led to Alison Millers infamous try against the Black Ferns in 2014? Or the offloading and running rugby we deployed against Kazakhstan thereafter?
We have a backline littered with players who have been involved with the seven’s programme at one stage or another. Why did we not adopted a more explosive and attractive brand of rugby to build on the skill set these players have developed on the sevens circuit over the years? Did Tierney and Eddy simply ignore this possibility, or did they not believe the skill level was there? Hardly the latter given the fact that this would be the ‘best prepared squad’ entering a Women’s Rugby World Cup. More concerning still was that management did not seem to take any learnings from their early fixture with Australia to adapt their game plan to deal with their threats, whereas the Australians did the complete opposite. In a recent interview with the Irish Independent, in response to the media backlash, Tierney stated ‘so long as the players aren’t affected then I have done my job as a coach’. What ‘coach’ speaks like this? Eddy and Tierney’s main concern should have been developing this squad, building on solid existing foundations and ensuring we were capable of competing to our full potential at this tournament. Instead, we suffered a defeat to Australia in the ranking positions play-off. A team who have only played 5 test matches in 3 years. Eddy and Tierney have a lot to answer for and a review is desperately required. While Tierney will most likely be the fall guy, it is Eddy, as Director of Women’s Rugby, who has had the final say in all aspects related to this team.
Aside from the International setup the IRFU also need to do a complete review of the game at all levels. Nora Stapleton has done great work as Women’s Development Officer at grassroots level and under her watch, we have seen a huge surge in playing numbers but we still need more. Due to our strong connections to our local clubs, 15’s is engrained in us at a cultural level and it is vital for both disciplines of rugby that the infrastructure and support across all aspects of the game, from U-18’s to Senior Club to Interprovincial, is improved. How many players have we seen actually develop from the underage provincial teams into the senior set up? To our knowledge, we can only account for two in this year’s World Cup Squad – Nicole Cronin (Munster 2010) and Anna Caplice (Munster 2008). Can we accept this as being good enough? Should we not look to develop a pathway from the underage provincial set up to a U-20 International team and beyond? France and England have seen players progress through the ranks from their U20 sides to senior level. Should we not be aspiring for something similar?
Alternatively, should we look at starting a development team similar to the England & France ‘A’ teams? As previously mentioned we have seen 32 new players capped before this year’s World Cup while close to 50 players were involved in the extended training squad. Should we not have a development team in place, similar to the 7’s programme, which tests these players out at a higher level than Interprovincial standard to identify those capable of making an immediate jump to the senior squad? Or to identify certain aspects of players games that need to be developed before they can push on?
All we can say for now is that what should have, and could have been, a very special World Cup for Irish fans and players alike, has ended in bitter disappointment. Eddy and Tierney failed to build on a team that offered so much promise a mere 3 years ago. A team that finished 4th in Paris. Now we find ourselves in a position whereby we are battling for 7th place and automatic qualification for the 2021 World Cup. For a group of players that gave their all, they deserved so much more in return. We now have two final pleas to give. Firstly, to the supporters who have followed this team to the moon and back, do not give up yet – we still have something worth fighting for this Saturday. Take to the stands of the Kingspan on Saturday. Be seen and be heard. Let the IRFU know that no matter what, we care about this team and we will fight for its future. For many it may be their last chance to don the green jersey. Let us give them the send-off they deserve.
Finally to the IRFU. Stand up, be accountable, recognise your inadequacies and put in place a plan that ensures women’s rugby, be it 15’s or 7s, is never in this position again.
The EXTREMELY frustrated supporters of Irish Women’s Rugby