Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Flying start for Ireland's women rugby players in Paris

Scrumthing special: Grace Davitt in action
Ashleigh Baxter in action against New Zealand
Grace Davitt and Ashleigh Baxter

They claimed a shock Women's Rugby World Cup victory over New Zealand, ending the reigning champs' dreams of a fifth consecutive title. This evening Ireland will be hoping for another stunning performance when they take on England in a much-anticipated meeting of the Six Nations rivals.

Lining out will be Ulster girls Ashleigh Baxter and Grace Davitt, who were part of the team which humbled New Zealand in what has been hailed as one of the great victories in the history of Irish women's sport.

Both Ulster players were key members of Ireland's winning Six Nations team last year.

Ashleigh Baxter at 22 years of age is one of the youngest of the headline-making team but has been playing tag rugby since she was a second year pupil at Down High School.

She joined Lisburn RFC and then moved to Belfast Harlequins at the age of 18.

The talented back row player, who lives in Castlewellan, works at an outdoors pursuits venue in Co Down, having graduated from Queen's University last year, where she studied aerospace engineering.

When she's not playing rugby, she enjoys spending time with her boyfriend Jonny, meeting friends or outdoor pursuits.

Baxter's close friend on the Ireland squad is fellow Ulster team-mate Grace Davitt.

The Dundalk-born centre, who celebrates her birthday on Christmas Day, moved to Belfast to work as a maintenance technician at Belfast harbour.

Having started playing rugby in Leinster, she joined Cooke RFC in south Belfast and the Ulster women's team, helping to win the Grand Slam Six Nations last year.

While this is Baxter's first World Cup campaign, the more experienced Davitt has already played in two previous World Cup tournaments in 2006 and 2010 in Canada and England.

Davitt is hopeful it will be a case of 'third time lucky' in France and that winning the Six Nations Grand Slam can spur the women on to claim their greatest victory yet, an accolade that has so far eluded the men's team.

In a recent interview she said: "My first cap was in 2005 and back then we were lucky to win one or two games in the Six Nations. For us to go and win the Grand Slam was just unthinkable.

"But now we have a belief within the squad that is just getting stronger and stronger and when you have the belief that you can win, it can happen for you.

"We've improved our position in the last two World Cups and we're progressing as a team so we're definitely aiming for sixth or higher."

The Grand Slam triumph and media coverage has led to an increase in the number of women playing the sport on both sides of the border.

Davitt said: "When I first started, people didn't know women played rugby, so for matches to be televised and for us to play at stadiums like Twickenham and the Aviva, it promotes the game in a great light and suddenly young girls have something to aspire to.

"The women's game has exploded with the number of girls playing, and playing at a younger age."

Head coach Philip Doyle said his women were ready to do battle. He said: "We've had a fantastic campaign so far and that has only come from hard work and dedication. We don't intend for it to end here."

BACKGROUND

The 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup is the seventh staging of the tournament and the sixth to be held in Europe. Ireland will line out the same 15 that upset holders New Zealand for their crucial Women's World Cup semi-final against England in Paris tonight. They will be hoping they can repeat the winning form of their Six Nations Grand Slam victory last year. The World Cup final will be played on Sunday in Paris.

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