Jubilant Irish women plan to slam it to Six Nations rivals
While Ireland's men will head for Rome this weekend hoping to avoid a first-ever Six Nations defeat by Italy, their female counterparts will travel intent on completing their first-ever Grand Slam.
Having banked their first Triple Crown by beating Wales, England and Scotland in their opening three matches, the Irish girls clinched the Women's Six Nations Championship last Friday night by adding France's prized scalp to their bag of kills.
Never before had they beaten the English; never before had they seen off the French. To have broken those ducks was a huge psychological boost for the women's game here. Ulster players have contributed handsomely to the success, with Larissa Muldoon and Ashleigh Baxter (right) starters at scrum-half and left-wing respectively. Normally Larissa plays at full-back but having been switched to 14 for the series she has adapted impressively to that unfamiliar role.
Four others – Stacey-Lea Kennedy, Amy Davis, Grace Davitt and Lauren Day – have featured among the replacements.
Although they are amateurs holding down day jobs and coping with responsibilities and demands in other areas of their lives, the dedication the Irish women have show is impressive to say the least.
Someone who knows all about that is former Ireland international Joy Sparke, who won 13 caps between 1997 and the Women's Rugby World Cup in 2006, and played alongside three members of the current all-conquering side – captain Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell and Joy Neville. When she retired from playing, Joy helped manage the squad and a number of those with whom she worked at that stage now have come through to feature in this season's championship-winning side. Now employed by Ulster Rugby as Women's Development Officer, she highlighted just how hard Philip Doyle's champions have worked.
"The success they have enjoyed is down to a lot of very hard work and dedication. There's a real passion about what they do and a real pride in wearing a green jersey," she said. "Although they are amateur athletes, their approach is professional. They do what has to be done in order to be the best they can be.
"Even when I was playing – and believe me, things really have moved on a lot since then – that meant getting up at what most people would consider to be a ridiculously early time to do a gym session before going to work.
"As well as those early mornings the Cooke girls would train on Monday and Friday nights while for Belfast Harlequins it's Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"Then you have to build in your cardio and weights sessions. And for those playing internationally there are camps every weekend in Dublin or Limerick. Plus the girls would have their own training programmes. So yes, they work very hard but now they're getting the reward and they're delighted with that."
The IRFU is now supporting the women's game as never before. Ireland coach Declan Kidney handed out the jerseys ahead of the Triple Crown-clinching game against the Scots at Lasswade on the eve of the men's Murrayfield encounter the following afternoon. "The IRFU's support is great for us," Joy enthused.
"Things really have progressed, the profile of the game really has been raised and people, who maybe didn't even know we exist, finally are starting to be aware of us."
President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was among the crowd of 3,000-plus for Friday night's 15-10 victory over France at Ashbourne. The Slam-pursuing Irish face their Italian counterparts on Sunday afternoon at Parabiago, Milan.