It feels like a case of 'one step forward, two steps back' for Irish women's rugby at the moment.
After the encouraging win against Italy, Ireland travelled to Welford Road to play the best team in the world yesterday. They did so without the services of seven squad members, who were drafted into the 7s squad as they train for an upcoming tournament in Vancouver that could secure qualification for September's 7s World Cup.
Playing England is difficult enough with a full squad. Despite a gutsy first-half performance, Ireland duly paid the price, suffering a 69-0 defeat. It again put the structures within Irish rugby into question.
The setback is particularly disappointing given the recent positive announcements from the IRFU that the women’s game would be receiving a boost in funding, and that a Head of Women’s Performance & Pathways would be appointed to oversee the women’s game in Ireland.
It sparked some very impassioned words from ex-Ireland internationals Jenny Murphy and Fiona Hayes, speaking on Virgin Sport after the game, and from former player Lindsey Peat in her column with the Irish Independent.
In a discussion with presenter Joe Molloy, Murphy questioned where the prioritise of the IRFU lay.
"I grew up watching Keith Wood and watching the Six Nations, it’s very much part of who we are, and culturally it’s very important for any rugby fan, the big ones are the World Cup and the Six Nations."
"But where is the priority with the IRFU at the moment, is it with 7s or is it with 15s? At the moment when you take away such a huge chunk of players, the answer seems pretty clear."
Hayes questioned the planning that had taken place or lack thereof, and criticised the fact that not only were these players taken from the squad, but that their replacements had not been training with the team for the entire Six Nations camp.
"You can’t question the heart and fight out of those girls that came in, they threw everything that they had.
"Big question, why weren’t the girls in camp and with them the whole time, why weren’t they training, why wasn’t Sene (Naoupu) there? These are questions that need to be answered going forward.
"I’m sure there’s reasonings behind all this, but it would be great if we were made aware. We knew that the 7s players were leaving, but it doesn’t say a lot for that depleted squad.
"They put in such a shift for the first-half, they were immense, there was great pride throughout the whole game, and it just saddened me to see a scoreline like that at the end, and the heads down at the end.”
When asked by Molloy whether things will be different next year, Murphy responded in a rather defeated tone:
"I genuinely don’t know."
"You’re going to have to be open and up front with the players,” she continued. “Ireland is different to England, we don’t have the playing numbers so we have to be smart about it. But make your decision and pick your lane, because it’s really tough on players having to jump from one boat to the other.
"They’re both different games, and obviously you can get so much from playing 7s and so much from playing 15s. But where do we want to perform? We missed out on this World Cup in New Zealand, and Ireland needs to be in the next World Cup.
"There needs to be pathways, there needs to be support, there needs to be proper steps made now, rather than waiting a couple of years down the line and being like ‘oh, we probably should have copped on a little earlier.”
"Where is the priority with the IRFU at the moment? Is it with Sevens or XVs?
"At the moment, when you take such a huge chunk of players, the answer is pretty clear."@jennymurphy045 & @fihayes27 on issue of Ireland losing players to Sevens rugby.#ENGvIRE #TikTokW6N pic.twitter.com/lDLjSmt66c
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) April 24, 2022
The recently-retired Lindsay Peat wrote eloquently in the Independent about a situation that is not the fault of the players in any way, but a systemic problem that is beginning to catch up on the women's game.
"Sitting in the stands at Welford Road, my heart was breaking for the Irish players, looking at a 10,000-piece jigsaw and not even knowing where to start. Where do we go from here? How do we bridge the gap?
"This result was never going to be about the players. It was about exposing the frailties in the framework underneath them. There’s been very little investment in them over the years, which was always going to catch up to us – and it has."
In a tweet today, she posted a photograph of herself back at work where she is a nurse - 24 hours after being in the wars against the England pack.
Back to it! 😴😴😴 pic.twitter.com/j3kv5oRrka
— Aoife McDermott (@AoifeMc15) April 25, 2022
After some green shoots this Six Nations, the IRFU finds itself in a situation where they must act swiftly if they are to not only grow the XV a side game, but save it.