As the playing field levels this weekend, the pressure mounts on Ireland in their search of a precious first win of this year’s Six Nations.
ack-to-back defeats to professional outfits, Wales and France, is forgivable for a team in transition, but taking on fellow amateurs Italy at home brings about certain expectations.
Over 5,000 supporters are set to be at Musgrave Park tomorrow evening and the paying public will be buoyed by the prospect of seeing Beibhinn Parsons from the start for the first time in the campaign.
The Cork venue will host a Women’s Test for the first time and Ireland would love nothing more than to mark the historic occasion with a big victory.
If they don’t, then the reality is Greg McWilliams’ side will be left staring down the barrel of a potential wooden spoon.
That may sound dramatic, but consider that several key players will be unavailable for the remaining two games against England and Scotland due to a Sevens tournament in Canada.
McWilliams has done his best to play down the significance of this clash, but deep down, the Ireland head coach knows that it is a very important game for the long-term development of his young and inexperienced squad.
The majority of the public understand the need for patience, yet Ireland have only ever lost two of their 18 previous meetings with Italy.
“I think for any good team, the pressure comes on yourself and your own individual performance,” McWilliams said.
“We need to focus on what we are trying to get better at.
“The better we get at, the more external pressure and demand to win will come on us. So, I think we need to focus on what we are trying to do to get better and put in a really good performance around what are going to be key tenets for us.
“We talk about set-piece, territory, looking after the ball. If we can get those things right or at least better this week, I think you’ll see an exciting game.
“We do want to get that win but we don’t focus on the win. That’s next to irrelevant, we focus on all the small things that will make that happen.”
For all that Italy will pose a major threat, they are not as strong as Wales or France, and as such, Ireland must look to impose their game-plan by laying down an early marker.
The set-piece is crucial in that regard and having watched Ireland struggle at scrum time in Toulouse last weekend, Italy will look to go after their hosts.
With limited time to rectify the issues, Ireland will be mindful of having better height at the scrum, while there is a responsibility on captain Nichola Fryday, as the main lineout caller, to simplify the call in order to ensure Neve Jones’ throw and the lineout lifts are more in sync.
If the pack can set the platform, Ireland have already shown that their backs can cause major damage, particularly now that Parsons is back on the wing.
McWilliams has given his players licence to play expansive rugby, yet they must strike a better balance between running the ball from deep and playing territory.
Kathryn Dane will add some experience at scrum-half, as Nicole Cronin looks to bring more control than she was able to against France’s ferocious line-speed. This time, it’s on Ireland to bring that aggressive approach in defence.
Parsons’ return adds a fresh dynamic to Ireland’s attack, and as the home crowd hope to see the Ballinasloe flyer light it up, she too must handle those expectations.
Coming off the bench last weekend, Parsons looked a little over-eager to impress, which is understandable for the 20-year-old, who would have been disappointed to be on the bench for the opening two rounds.
However, the stage is now set for Parsons to make her mark.
“Look, Bey obviously adds an extra spark, she’s dynamic, we know that,” McWilliams said.
“Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe is one hell of a winger. Eimear Considine is a hell of a winger who is losing out this week, where we have Aoife Doyle coming in.
“You just hope that anyone playing out wide adds spark and an energy, gets the crowd going, gets the team going. Everyone wants to see Ireland playing good rugby and scoring tries. I know they are the people who can hopefully do that for us.”
As well as Dane and Parsons, Christy Haney comes in at tighthead, with Hannah O’Connor getting the nod at No 8, and 19-year-old back-row Aoife Wafer hoping to make her international debut from the bench.
This is the last time we will see many of these players on the Six Nations stage until next year. Signing off with a win would do wonders to reassure everyone that Ireland are on the right track.