WHEN Ireland beat New Zealand in the Women’s Rugby World Cup in France last summer, there was a sign in the dressing room that read ‘The winning qualities of this team will be reflected by the standards we set’.
It said it all.
No-one predicted the standard of play that Philip Doyle’s players would dish out to the then world champions in a Parisian suburb, only themselves.
In beating the four-time World Cup champions (17-14), they laid bare their all — their passion, determination and will to win. Even more so, their unrelenting self-belief.
Only they and the backroom staff knew how far they had to go to pull off the biggest heist in Irish rugby.
On Sunday, under new management, they won the Six Nations Championship, but the journey to that point has been forgotten by Irish sports fans swept away in the euphoria of ‘the double’.
Enjoying retirement and carrying out commentary duties over the course of the 2015 campaign, former captain Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell remember only too well where it began, bumming lifts to make training in Dublin and finding their own accommodation in the early days.
Cantwell, in playing in her fourth World Cup last summer, remembers losing three of their four games in Barcelona in 2002 — the heaviest of which was to Canada, 57-0. But that was nothing compared to the 79-0 trouncing against England months earlier in the Six Nations in Worcester.
By 2004 they had progressed to being the curtain-raiser to the men’s Six Nations game in Twickenham. Former international Rosie Foley still recounts the tale. It was to be a proud day for the Munster star, watching her brother, Anthony, win his 50th international cap. But, with no tickets allocated, she and her team-mates watched the game in a pub around the corner from the Stoop with their opponents.
In 2006, former player Laura Guest remembers paying for their gear out of their own pockets at the World Cup in Edmonton, Canada.
Did they complain? No.
By 2012, things had improved having jumped to seventh in the World Rankings. But, on the eve of playing France away in the Six Nations, they were forced to take an overnight train from Paris to Pau given that the coach they’d rented to take them to the train station in Paris got stuck in traffic.
Plan B it was then.
This time around, the financial support was bang on for their arrival at the 2014 World Cup in Marcoussis. Winning a Grand Slam in 2013, however, would do that.
RTÉ came on board when history beckoned and broadcast their first ever international women’s rugby game, when Coghlan’s side denied Italy in a mud bath on the outskirts of Milan to lift the trophy. Their coverage since has been superb, broadcasting Sunday’s game live on RTE television, and their other games live on 2FM.
The players’ take was that they needed to make history to be noticed, and they did. In last year’s Six Nations, they relinquished their title to France, and it hurt.
Playing at the Aviva Stadium eased the pain somewhat, as did the hype of playing in Twickenham on live television, but as much as this bunch were acutely aware of the need to promote their sport, and women’s sport, it’s always gone back to setting standards.
At that point, the bar was the highest its ever been, and the expectation of making it to the final four was not yet realised. A win over Kazakhstan earned them a semi-final place against eventual champions England in Stade Jean Bouin, but Ireland never showed up.
The nation was engrossed in their history-making endeavours against the Kiwis and the Irish media flocked to Marcoussis. Ireland did their best to redeem themselves in a play-off for third against France, but were cut short, and it signalled the end of an era for the likes of Coghlan, Cantwell, Siobháin Fleming, Grace Davitt, Laura Guest and Doyle and team manager Gemma Crowley.
What they’ve left behind however wasn’t just an incredible journey, but a blueprint for younger players as to how to carry themselves. The likes of Jenny Murphy, Sophie Spence, Nora Stapleton and Paula Fitzpatrick have now turned the pages of that same blueprint.
Quality means doing the right thing when no one was looking, Henry Ford once said.
The Irish women’s rugby team have been doing it for years, always with class, always with grace.
They’ve taken to the nation’s heart once again, but the world could very well be their oyster come the 2017 World Cup.
Hopefully, on Irish shores too.