The widespread perception was that they could scarcely afford it, but the Ireland women's rugby team was stripped of the services of three key figures early last week as Tom Tierney's squad built towards the visit of reigning champions France.
Despite Ireland entering the weekend atop the 6 Nations table and the country playing host to the Women's World Cup this summer, backs Sene Naoupu, Alison Miller and Hannah Tyrrell were plucked from the squad and put on a plane to join up with the Irish women's 7s team ahead of the Las Vegas leg of the World Series on March 1st and 2nd.
The decision to remove them from the 15s squad at such a crucial juncture was met with widespread derision. It struck as less than ideal preparation for a newly-forged squad less than six months before World Cup kick-off on home soil (incidentally, France are also in Ireland's World Cup group). However, all three players are centrally contracted to the Sevens programme, which is supplemented by the government.
In their absence, a supreme display saw Ireland prevail on a scoreline of 13-10, keeping them joint-top with England in this season's 6 Nations with two fixtures remaining.
Post-game, Tierney decried the criticism levelled at the IRFU for tampering with his 6 Nations squad, labelling it "ridiculous." He would later admit that he couldn't remember when he met with IRFU Director of Women’s and Sevens rugby Anthony Eddy to discuss the prospect of losing three of his stars, but was adamant that it had been in the pipeline for some time.
"Some of the chat that’s going on is just ridiculous and you can’t argue with it," an irritated Tierney told the press following Ireland's victory over France.
You just leave it go. The key for me is we’re more than happy, delighted, with how the plan is going. It’s not them being taken away. It’s a squad and we’ve got two forms of the game. They’re all key players.
Tierney clearly found himself in a predicament and so naturally backed his employers' system, and to his credit, a supposedly weaker Ireland side got the job done in Donnybrook. It was a result which spoke to the aforementioned 'plan': Not dissimilar to the men's team, the women are intent on building a squad of greater depth than to which they've grown accustomed. Claire McLaughlin, Kim Flood and Eimear Considine deputised for the three 7s absentees and to significant acclaim, and Ireland remain top.
Still, there remained questions. This is, after all, a 6 Nations taking place just half a year before Ireland host the World Cup, and as such a tad late to assemble a squad almost from scratch; Tierney himself received plenty of criticism for the turnover of personnel between the November Tests and February, and last week it was picked apart once more - this time by the IRFU, and in the middle of a tournament. Fans were vociferously furious, as too, privately, were the Irish players.
The issue was addressed by IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora on Monday night's Against The Head on RTÉ, who ascertained that the media had made a mountain out of a molehill.
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) February 27, 2017
Disappointed, really, the way that it seemed to be conveyed through the media - mainly because of all the effort and work that's been done over the past two years within the women's rugby programme.
Post the World Cup in 2014, we put a plan together to bring the women's 15s into the same programme as the women's 7s and create an over-arching women's rugby programme and resource it to a very high level. And we managed to do that...full-time coaches, full-time support through strength and conditioning, medical and nutrition. There's been massive improvement for the girls and a lot of money has been invested.
The money that's invested now in the women's programme has more than doubled in the 15s programme. The investment in hosting the women's World Cup is enormous, and all of that is going to wanting to develop and promote the game of women's rugby.
Joanne Cantwell then interjected and asked Nucifora if this investment meant people were not entitled to be critical of three players being withdrawn from a national squad on moving week in a 6 Nations which will ultimately set standards for the biggest event in Irish women's rugby history.
Nucifora's response raised eyebrows, as he accused fans of not having their facts straight, and described the reaction as 'emotional' and 'over the top'.
No not at all. People are more than welcome to speak their mind, but to have their facts right in the first place is the most important thing.
Cantwell: Well, what was wrong then?
You know, there was a plan in place many, many months ago about how we manage the 7s and the 15s, and how the players were going to be utilised and developed. And on the week of one particular game, people start becoming very emotional around how they looked at the selections we had made, and how we chose to utilise our playing group. I just thought it was over the top.
We've got a very small playing base in Irish rugby in the women's game, and we've learned not only in the women's World Cup but in the men's World Cup that if we're going to be a real force, we've got to develop our depth. And for us to be able to do that, we've got to be able to utilise everything at our disposal. That includes using 7s to develop players for the 15s. It means we have to do whatever we can; if that means introducing players into Test matches to see if they're capable of playing at that level, then that's what we have to do, because there isn't a level of the game underneath the women's international game that's going to give us that type of indicator as to whether people are up to or not.
Nucifora's criticism of fans' criticism naturally drew further criticism, but in this case for its rather demeaning tone as opposed to its critical nature.
Irish women's sport podcast, FAIR GAME Podcast, asked if supporters of the men's team would be labelled 'emotional' in similar circumstances, with Una Mullaly of the Irish Times describing Nucifora's remarks as 'patronising'.
Oh, fail. So patronising. https://t.co/QeiObQkzl5
— Una Mullally (@UnaMullally) February 27, 2017
While one might argue that such a scenario would never present itself in the men's game, there is precedence; the issue of key players being pulled for 7s duty rose its head this time last year, albeit at AIL level.
Two days before Young Munster's seven-point defeat to Cork Con in the Munster Senior Cup final, two of Dave Corkery's starters - current Munster player Dan Goggin along with Ger Lyons - were pulled from the Limerick club's squad for an Irish 7s training camp.
That February evening in February of 2016, an irate Corkery told Aoife Danagher in the Irish Times:
It’s a fucking disgrace, for players for have missed this game for a fucking Irish 7s training camp, after what we have gone through all year, a fucking disgrace, and you can quote me on that 100 per cent.
The IRFU need to a have a serious look at themselves in the mirror. They pulled some of the Cons boys for a Under-20s practice game so if that’s how they treat the Munster Senior Cup, with 100 years history then they need to seriously fucking look at themselves.
It is just a complete slur towards the club and I don’t know if I am overstepping my mark but that is the way I feel.
They view that [an upcoming 7s tournament] as more important than a Munster Senior Cup game, then they need to start looking at themselves. Guys that are just trying to earn their wage, and this is how they do it. They pull players from clubs who have their fucking backs into the walls already.
Almost 13 months on, and there remains a fundamental disconnect between the IRFU and Irish rugby fans when it comes to the perceived importance of 7s in a grander Irish Rugby context.
Unlike many rugby-playing nations, Ireland doesn't have a particularly illustrious history in the sport's more spacious code. Fans generally don't see Ireland playing 7s on tv, and it's scarcely heard about relative to its larger cousin. While the Rio Olympics once more proved it a wonderful spectacle, even the national 7s teams are considered an utter nuisance by numerous Irish club coaches. It lives on in the Irish rugby periphery, but remains somewhat of an enigma to all but those involved in it.
The IRFU views it entirely differently, particularly where the women are concerned. While the lucrative nature of a tournament circuit which takes in cities such as Hong Kong, Las Vegas and Dubai hardly requires explanation, David Nucifora and co. also feel a responsibility to develop the sport within Ireland. They regard it not only as an alternative route to producing 15s players (see Munster's Dan Goggin above on the men's side, for example), but more pertinently as a separate entity with the capacity to bring success on an international stage, and perhaps even Olympic medals in due course.
The problem is that the IRFU haven never sufficiently outlined the significance of 7s to the shallower talent pool of the women's game, or how the Ireland women's 7s team - who currently occupy 9th position - need to finish 8th or higher to both retain their place in the World Series and to qualify for the 7s World Cup. They've never explained how World Rugby allocate huge funding for 7s, and how they run the risk of missing out on it if they don't develop the sport accordingly.
Instead, David Nucifora went on the defensive, belittling fans for their lack of 'facts' regarding an extremely niche sport which, in this country, they hear very little about in the first place. The fact that Sene Naoupu, Alison Miller and Hannah Tyrrell's Ireland 15s teammates only learned of the trio's unavailability for France as late as February 15th tells its own tale as to the current disconnect, disorganisation and divide between the two fields.
Ultimately, to emerge from a pickle with a 6 Nations victory over France may serve as vindication for the IRFU's precarious gamble, but their lack of regard for fans' concerns in a home World Cup year is utterly distasteful. On a weekend where 3,000 or so fans attended the women's game at Donnybrook and in a year where so many more are due to flock to grounds in the summer, they deserve better than to have valid concerns branded 'emotional'.