8.7 million rugby fans tuned into Scotland deservedly beating England at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years on Saturday. Little did they know, there was another upset playing out in Devon as Exeter Chiefs Women secured their fourth win on the bounce, seeing off Harlequins in a nail-biting battle. A modest 1600 viewers tuned in to the game, which boasted a number of future England stars giving Simon Middleton something to think about in preparation for his Six Nations and World Cup campaigns. 2021 could be the year for women’s rugby.
Born into a rugby mad family, I grew up watching my dad play at Old Albanians RFC. As he edged closer to retirement, he stayed on the pitch at half time to give me and my brother some high catches and a chance to practice our passing and kicking. After the game, you would either find me drinking the dregs of beer on the tables or singing the club song, sat on the bar. It was a male rich environment. More often than not, the only women in the clubhouse the whole weekend were either running the bar, cooking the food, or picking the kids up.
Times have changed. Not only is there a place for women’s rugby in the clubhouse, there is a place for women’s rugby across the world. I am proud to say that I am a fan of women’s rugby, a convert; the views of yesteryear are outdated. Even better, recent successes have proved that women’s rugby is firmly on the map and is here to stay.
Increasingly inspired by the impact many are having in promoting rugby to demographics that otherwise may not have had an opportunity to play (see Vitality Grassroots Sportswomen of the Year 2020, Zainab Alema, for example) it is also great to see the likes of Maggie Alphonsi, Nolli Waterman and Kat Merchant on our screens as pundits. There is great hope for the future generations of Red Roses.
There has, however, been one reoccurring theme throughout the increasing exposure that has greatly stunted the game’s growth – the commentary.
I have been fortunate to see, first-hand, the dedication and commitment made by players at Premier 15s and International level. There is nothing lesser about what these athletes put themselves through to achieve their goals in comparison to the men’s game. In fact, there is a whole lot more as the large majority have to balance full-time jobs, studying for degrees or in some examples, leading the nations efforts in combating COVID-19. These rugby players deserve far more respect, at all levels.
Yet, whilst watching and listening to the matches, comments regarding the sport are unappreciative and condescending. Even worse, these comments are echoed through the fan base. Despite the highly qualified pundits providing their expert insight, this shift must happen now, if the followership is going to continue to grow as it should.
Whilst we have been fortunate to have a steady stream of rugby to watch over the winter months, the Allianz Premier 15s games tend to have a similar issue.
Exeter have caused two huge upsets, and in doing so inflicting Saracens’ first loss since October 2018 last week. In a game that looked like it could come down to the wire, Saracens unleashed England International Poppy Cleall from the bench. In a pivotal moment in the game when Saracens had the upper hand and momentum, they were awarded penalty advantage and a ‘free play’. Cleall, typically a second row or back row forward, kicked the ball away in anticipation of being awarded the subsequent penalty. Commentary followed, ‘we’ll let her off that one’. Holly Aitchison missed touch, Exeter were on the front foot and the game shifted into their hands. Should Cleall have been let off? Or had she kicked the game away?
As we wait for the Red Roses to play their Six Nations Competition in April – out of the shadows of the men’s tournament – last Autumn, 1.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the scintillating two-match series between England and France. One game displayed a dominant England side become top on the world rankings followed by an astonishing comeback against a passionate French team at the Home of Rugby a week later.
There was also a defining moment during the Red Rose’s Grand Slam Six Nations win against Italy last season. Thirty-three minutes in, England were dominating. With penalty advantage, inside centre Amber Reed broke through the Italian defence on the attacking 22m line and offloaded to scrum-half Claudia MacDonald, only for the opportunity to go begging. Clearly devastated, MacDonald trudged back, hands on head.Embed from Getty Images
The commentary that followed completely under-valued the sport. “She’s smiling, that’s alright” and “She knows she had the advantage, so it’s fine”. No. It was a clear error. I am sure the first person to say she should have done better, is the England half-back herself.
Echo a similar situation in men’s rugby. Those that watched the Six Nations this weekend saw two fly-halves get a slating for missing two rather large opportunities. With Billy Burns missing touch in the final play of Wales vs Ireland and ruining a last gasp chance to steal the game, and Owen Farrell neglecting a 4 man overlap by kicking the ball down Stuart Hogg’s throat, it seems that in the women’s game the commentary is far more forgiving. This should not be the case, particularly whilst the most passionate women’s rugby advocates are pushing hard for equality. The sympathetic commentary should be reserved for the parents on the sidelines of the grassroots level; the future Red Roses who play on a Sunday morning at their local club.Embed from Getty Images
A missed tackle whilst watching the Red Roses would be met with a comment like ‘that was a good effort to try make that tackle’. It happens more often than not. A similar scenario in the men’s game would draw some deep analysis of what that missed tackle means for the team. As a consequence, the supporters deem these belittling comments acceptable and they are echoed throughout the rugby circles.
Another comparison worth making is one we often hear regarding the styles of play – northern vs southern hemisphere – but the commentary style is noticeably different too. We should learn from some of the Farah Palmer Cup commentary. There is a great deal more conviction and passion, no differentiation between what you’d see and hear in a Mitre 10 Cup game. Even better, you won’t find many negative comments regarding the competition in their resident country either. A coincidence? Perhaps not.
Now, with the buildup to the busy calendar of rugby in 2021, our Red Roses deserve greater appreciation. There is no better place to start than with the Premier 15s and the way we, from fans to commentators alike, observe and articulate our views on the analysis of the game.
If the women’s game is to be taken seriously, then the players cannot be treated differently. Now more than ever, that has to begin with how we make comment about it.
Ireland Women make changes
Griggs has made three changes to his starting XV for the visit of Italy to Dublin, as Ireland bid to finish the 2021 Championship campaign in third position.
Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, Stacey Flood and Brittany Hogan are all in line for their first Test starts, while uncapped Railway Union flanker Grace Moore could make her Ireland debut off the bench. Born in London, Moore’s potential as an athletic and dynamic back row forward was identified through the IQ Rugby Programme and from there, the 24-year-old’s talent has been developed and honed by Anthony Eddy and the Ireland Women’s Sevens Programme.
Murphy Crowe, who came off the bench to make her debut against Italy last weekend, is promoted to the right wing, with Eimear Considine continuing at full-back and Beibhinn Parsons on the left wing.
Sene Naoupu and Eve Higgins are retained in the Ireland midfield, while Flood (pictured below) comes in at out-half for her third cap and first start having impressed off the bench in the games against Wales and France. The Ireland Sevens international partners Kathryn Dane in the half-back department.
Hogan’s inclusion in the back row is the only change Griggs has made to his pack, with the experienced front row of Lindsay Peat, Clidohna Moloney and Linda Djougang packing down together again, and Aoife McDermott and Nichola Fryday retained in the second row.
Hogan comes in at openside flanker, with Dorothy Wall continuing at blindside and captain Ciara Griffin once again leading from the back of the scrum.
On the bench, Neve Jones and Leah Lyons are included to provide front row cover alongside Laura Feely, with the uncapped Moore and Hannah O’Connor also named among the replacements. Backs Emily Lane, Hannah Tyrell and Enya Breen complete the Match Day 23.
Commenting on his selection, Head Coach Griggs said: “This week our focus has been on us and the quality of performance we know we can deliver. We learned some valuable lessons last weekend and we now have the opportunity to rectify some of the areas that we need to show more accuracy, and we want to finish this competition strongly which we are extremely excited about.”
IRELAND WOMEN’S Team & Replacements (v Italy Women, 2021 Women’s Six Nations Championship 3rd/4th Place Play-Off, Energia Park, Saturday, April 24, kick-off 12pm)
15. Eimear Considine (UL Bohemian/Munster)(17 caps)
14. Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union/Munster)(1)
13. Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster)(2)
12. Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/ Leinster)(40)
11. Beibhinn Parsons (Ballinasloe/Blackrock College/Connacht)(10)
10. Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster)(2)
9. Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere/Ulster)(12)
1. Lindsay Peat (Railway Union/Leinster)(33)
2. Cliodhna Moloney (Wasps/IQ Rugby)(25)
3. Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere/Leinster)(11)
4. Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/Leinster)(15)
5. Nichola Fryday (Blackrock College/Connacht)(17)
6. Dorothy Wall (Blackrock College/ Munster)(6)
7. Brittany Hogan (DCU/Old Belvedere/Ulster)(3)
8. Ciara Griffin (Captain)(UL Bohemian/Munster)(35)
16. Neve Jones (Malone/Ulster)(2)
17. Laura Feely (Blackrock College/Connacht)(18)
18. Leah Lyons (Harlequins/IQ Rugby)(25)
19. Grace Moore (Railway Union/IQ Rugby)*
20. Hannah O’Connor (Blackrock College/Leinster)(4)
21. Emily Lane (Blackrock College/Munster)(2)
22. Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster)(19)
23. Enya Breen (UL Bohemian/Munster)(5)
* Denotes uncapped player
Ireland Team Named To Face Wales In Women’s Six Nations
Head Coach Adam Griggs has named his Ireland Match Day 23 to face Wales in Saturday’s Women’s Six Nations game in Cardiff, with Sevens international Eve Higgins set for her XVs debut in the centre and uncapped backs Emily Lane and Stacey Flood included on the replacements bench.
Ireland will be captained by Ciara Griffin in the opening game of their 2021 Championship campaign at Cardiff Arms Park (Kick-off 5pm, live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player), with Griggs’ starting XV showing three changes to the side that beat Italy at Energia Park last October.
Higgins, who has starred for Ireland on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in recent seasons, has impressed during Ireland’s preparations for the Six Nations and earns her debut cap in midfield alongside the experienced Sene Naoupu.
Sevens internationals Lane and Flood are included on the bench for their first taste of Championship action.
Eimear Considine returns to the full-back jersey as one of the three changes in personnel from the victory over Italy last time out, with Lauren Delany switching to the right wing and Beibhinn Parsons lining out on the left.
21-year-old Higgins, capped 20 times for Ireland Sevens, partners Naoupu in midfield, while the half-back pairing of Hannah Tyrrell and Kathryn Dane are retained having impressed against the Azzurri.
There is an unchanged front row named by Griggs as Lindsay Peat, Cliodhna Moloney and Linda Djougang once again pack down together, with the fit-again Aoife McDermott returning to the second row alongside Nichola Fryday.
Griffin leads the side from number eight, with Dorothy Wall set for her fifth cap at blindside flanker and Claire Molloy named at openside.
Uncapped duo Lane and Flood provide the half-back cover on the replacements bench, where they are joined by forwards Neve Jones, Katie O’Dwyer, Laura Feely, Brittany Hogan and Hannah O’Connor, with Enya Breen providing the additional backline cover.
Commenting on his selection, Head Coach Griggs says the competition for places within the squad has intensified in recent weeks as the squad stepped up their preparations at the IRFU High Performance Centre.
“We are extremely confident in the squad we have selected,” he said. “We have had a great deal of time to prepare together and this group of players have earned the responsibility to bring the high standards we have set ourselves throughout training into this first game.
“Wales at home will bring a strong challenge and we need to make sure we start the game well and build a platform that allows us to play our game and start this competition off with a win.”
Ireland’s opening game of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations is live on RTÉ and the RTÉ Player in the Republic of Ireland, while there is coverage on the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport Website for supporters in the UK.
IRELAND WOMEN’S Team & Replacements (v Wales Women, 2021 Women’s Six Nations Championship Round 2, Cardiff Arms Park, Saturday, April 10, kick-off 5pm)
15. Eimear Considine (UL Bohemian/Munster)(15 caps)
14. Lauren Delany (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby)(12)
13. Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster)*
12. Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/ Leinster)(38)
11. Beibhinn Parsons (Ballinasloe/Blackrock College/Connacht)(8)
10. Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster)(17)
9. Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere/Ulster)(10)
1. Lindsay Peat (Railway Union/Leinster)(31)
2. Cliodhna Moloney (Wasps/IQ Rugby)(23)
3. Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere/Leinster)(9)
4. Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/Leinster)(13)
5. Nichola Fryday (Blackrock College/Connacht)(15)
6. Dorothy Wall (Blackrock College/ Munster)(4)
7. Claire Molloy (Wasps/IQ Rugby)(70)
8. Ciara Griffin (Captain)(UL Bohemian/Munster)(33)
16. Neve Jones (Malone/Ulster)(1)
17. Katie O’Dwyer (Railway Union/Leinster)(1)
18. Laura Feely (Blackrock College/Connacht)(16)
19. Brittany Hogan (DCU/Old Belvedere/Ulster)(1)
20. Hannah O’Connor (Blackrock College/Leinster)(2)
21. Emily Lane (Blackrock College/Munster)*
22. Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster)*
23. Enya Breen (UL Bohemian/Munster)(4).
Five Uncapped Players Named In Ireland’s Women’s Six Nations Squad
All five have been capped at 7s and represented Ireland at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens. The quintet includes Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe who was the series Top Try scorer in 2019 and named in the Dream Team.
Stacey Flood, Eve Higgins, Emily Lane, Grace Moore and Murphy Crowe have been part of the training squad since the conclusion of the Championship back in October.
Claire Boles and Emma Hooban were also added to the squad at the same time and are named for the upcoming tournament.
Ireland will be without the experienced trio of Ciara Cooney, Edel McMahon, Claire McLaughlin and Grand Slam winner Larissa Muldoon as all four are unavailable due to injury.
A week later they are back at Energia Park to face France, with that game down for a 2:15 start.
The tournament concludes with a final round of games on April 24th determined by results over the first two rounds.
Ciara Griffin will captain the squad which also includes newcomers Katie O’Dwyer, Neve Jones and Brittany Hogan, who all made their debut against Italy last October.
Ireland head coach Adam Griggs commented: “It means a huge amount to us to have test rugby on the horizon. This group have been working very closely together over the past number of months and the Six Nations was always going to be a priority for us.
We have two more camps to fine tune things ahead of the first fixture and competition for match squad places will be high.”
Ireland Squad (Women’s Six Nations Championship 2021)
Enya Breen (UL Bohemian/ Munster) 4
Eimear Considine (UL Bohemian/ Munster) 15
Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere/ Ulster) 10
Lauren Delany (Sale Sharks/ IQ Rugby) 12
Aoife Doyle (Railway Union/ Munster) 6
Katie Fitzhenry (Blackrock College/ Leinster) 13
Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster) *
Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster) *
Ailsa Hughes (Railway Union/ Leinster) 12
Emily Lane (Blackrock College/Munster) *
Ellen Murphy (Blackrock College/Leinster) 7
Amee Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union/Munster) *
Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/ Leinster) 38
Beibhinn Parsons (Ballinasloe/Blackrock College/ Connacht) 8
Laura Sheehan (Exeter Chiefs/IQ Rugby) 4
Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/ Leinster) 17
Claire Boles (Railway Union/Ulster) 3
Anna Caplice (Harlequins/ IQ Rugby) 14
Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere/ Leinster) 9
Laura Feely (Blackrock College/ Connacht) 15
Nichola Fryday (Blackrock College/ Connacht) 15
Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemian/ Munster) 33
Brittany Hogan (DCU/Old Belvedere/Ulster) 1
Emma Hooban (Blackrock College/Leinster) 7
Neve Jones (Malone/Ulster) 1
Leah Lyons (Harlequins/ IQ Rugby) 25
Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/ Leinster) 13
Claire Molloy (Wasps/IQ Rugby) 70
Cliodhna Moloney (Wasps/ IQ Rugby) 23
Grace Moore (Railway Union/IQ Rugby) *
Hannah O’Connor (Blackrock College/ Leinster) 2
Katie O’Dwyer (Railway Union/ Leinster) 1
Chloe Pearse (UL Bohemian/ Munster) 2
Lindsay Peat (Railway Union/ Leinster) 31
Dorothy Wall (Blackrock College/ Munster) 4
* Denotes uncapped at this level
Women’s Six Nations 2021 Fixtures
Wales v Ireland, Cardiff Arms Park, Saturday, April 10, 5pm
Ireland v France, Energia Parck, Saturday, April 17, 2:15pm
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