McWilliams hoping newly qualified ‘proven test internationals’ can have major impact
When Ireland women’s rugby head coach Greg McWilliams unveiled his original squad for the forthcoming summer tour of Japan last month, two names in particular stuck out.
Despite having already been capped by England in full international tests, Clara Nielson and Jo Brown were named amongst a 28-strong selection for a two-test series against the East Asian nation on August 20 and 27. This is courtesy of World Rugby’s new eligibility rule – which came into effect at the beginning of 2022 – that allows players to switch allegiances to another country if they have stood down from international rugby for three years.
Given Nielson and Brown last represented England during the Women’s Rugby Super Series in June and July of 2019 (and are both of Irish ancestry), McWilliams seized upon the opportunity to bring them into his set-up. Although injury has ultimately ruled Nielson out of the Japan tour, the Dubliner is excited to see what Brown can bring to his back-row.
“The two of them are proven test internationals with England and now we’ve got the ability to select them for Ireland. Clara isn’t travelling because unfortunately she picked up an injury, but we’ve got a good replacement that came in. Jo Brown will be joining us in Japan and I’m excited. You are testing your depth, but at the same time, we want to win,” McWilliams explained.
“We’re bringing in people and my staff are bringing in players that we believe have the ability to do great things. They’re great individuals. With Jo and with Clara, we’ve done a huge amount of work talking to people about what they can bring as players. We’ve seen lots of footage, we’ve seen their GPS figures and they fit the model.”
Also missing out through injury for this tour – the first of its kind for an Ireland women’s team – will be Tipperary native Maeve Óg O’Leary, with her place in the travelling squad going to the uncapped Jessica Keating.
On a sports scholarship at Life University in Georgia for the past few years, Keating is a former student of St Mac Dara’s Community College in Templeogue, Dublin and is a player McWilliams has been aware of for quite some time.
“I had seen her play while I was in America and when I was in Japan with the USA [men’s] team for the World Cup in 2019, I got sent my first video on her. Irrelevant of me being back in Ireland, it was to do with a USA side. She was in between.
“The USA were keen for her to declare, but we had to make sure she stayed with Ireland. We’re going to have a look at her on tour and we’re looking forward to seeing lots of players who are coming on tour. I truly believe in this squad and I believe in the direction that they’re going in.”
As well as having several new additions in his playing squad – four of whom have just completed their Leaving Certificate examinations – McWilliams has substantially bolstered his backroom staff.
While former Fiji and Connacht coach John McKee’s involvement for this summer window had already been revealed, it was also confirmed that ex-Munster hooker Denis Fogarty is on board as scrum coach – the same role, coincidentally, that his brother John fulfils for the Ireland men’s side.
However, there is another brace of off-field appointments that will prove even more significant for the future health and welfare of the Ireland women’s team.
“We have Ed Slattery, who’s come over from Men’s Sevens to be our head s&c coach, and Roisin Murphy in as head physiotherapist. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a full-time head s&c coach, and a full-time physio, with the programme. That’s significant because the care that the players are getting has always been there, but now it has gone to that next level.
“I think I’m really happy with the staff that we have assembled. Under the radar, we have John McKee in with me who was the Fijian men’s national coach for two Rugby World Cups. I’ve worked with John in the past and we see the game similarly. Denis Fogarty is our scrum coach which, again, is another really important appointment,” McWilliams added.