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We must use World Cup to inspire Ulster girls: Eliza

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With less than a month to go until the Women's Rugby World Cup kicks off, former Ireland international Eliza Downey believes the tournament is a once-in-a-generation chance to grow the game on these shores.

The pool stages, which take place in Dublin's UCD, will begin on August 9 in front of sold-out crowds before the knock-out stages come to Belfast, where both the semi-finals and final will be held in Kingspan Stadium.

Downey, who still represents Ulster and the province's only All-Ireland League side Cooke, played for Ireland at the 2010 tournament and is thrilled that the final will be so close to home.

"I think it's a huge opportunity," she said. "It's something that has to be pushed every chance we get. Imagine how many people could look back and say that this was how they started playing rugby or created their interest.

"For rugby, having something of this magnitude on our doorstep is unbelievable.

"When I was playing over in London in 2010, I never would have thought that seven years later we'd have been talking about having the final right here in Belfast.

"To have the chance to see international teams here, it's brilliant and to see large numbers watching women's rugby in Kingspan will be unbelievable.

"With any major scale sporting event, you always want to see a legacy building afterwards. Having it in Kingspan, we need to make sure we utilise this opportunity to inspire that younger age group.

"To have the chance for people to see international teams so easily is wonderful and will only grow awareness of the women's game."

It's an opportunity she desperately hopes isn't wasted.

The exploits of the Ireland team in the last five years - a Grand Slam in 2013, beating New Zealand on the way to the World Cup semi-finals in 2014 and another Six Nations title in 2015 - have raised interest to an unprecedented level but a home World Cup could make it a different ball game.

Downey sees real potential for a successful showing to bring a whole new generation of players to the game.

"If you look at the amount of media attention it creates now, the players are role models for young kids," said the winger. "Whether it's the Irish, or the Silver Ferns or whoever, getting to see teams playing at the very top level should only see that spread.

"The Six Nations and getting to the semi-finals at the last World Cup in 2014 have been huge but, like anything, as time goes by it fades from the memory a little.

"There's obviously pressure on the girls because they're the host team, but success from them will really drive the interest.

"For so many people this will be their first taste of rugby at that level. I know RTE have covered games, and online as well, but unless somebody has turned it on for them, it probably won't have crossed their minds that they could play rugby until now."

And while hoping that seeing the likes of Niamh Briggs, Magali Harvey, Sarah Hunter and Kendra Cocksedge up close will provide real inspiration, Downey has her fingers crossed that Ulster will see a homegrown star or two running out at the Kingspan.

Ireland have yet to name their final squad but Downey's Cooke team-mates Claire McLaughlin, Ashleigh Baxter and Ilse van Staden were all included in a training panel last month.

"I suppose it's the dream to have Ulster girls in there," added Downey. "To have team-mates of mine potentially making that squad is something I'd love to see.

"I'm hoping we do have that representation because I know how hard they've worked for it.

"People sometimes take it for granted but there's an incredible amount of training and emotion that goes into preparing for a tournament like this.

"It'll be nice for me to go and see the games and have it bring back some memories of all that too."

Belfast Telegraph

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