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Ciara Griffin column: 'Sevens withdrawals an unnecessary distraction before England trip'

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Published in Rugby
Thursday, 21 April 2022 00:03

Facing England is always a massive challenge, so the last thing Ireland needed in the build-up to Sunday was the disruption caused by key players returning to the sevens set-up.

It's a very difficult position to be in. I know Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams said from the outset that players were eligible for sevens selection, but it's an unnecessary distraction leading into such a big game against England.

The sevens players had integrated smoothly into the 15s, too. Eve Higgins has been immense at centre, playing some of her best rugby at 15s level, Stacey Flood has done well at 12, Lucy Mulhall has shown her versatility and Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe has been electric on the wing.

With Beibhinn Parsons and Brittany Hogan also taken away, a lot of big names that have been involved over the past three games aren't available, and that only hurts Ireland's chances by disturbing the cohesion that has been built during this championship.

They were playing some great rugby and had become an integral part of the team. It would have been great to see what those players could have done against England, so it's a lost opportunity in addition to being stressful for the remaining players.

Sometimes it comes down to basic communication. It sounds simple, but it is often overlooked.

The sevens calendar is jam-packed and they need to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, but the respective calendars need to be aligned in a way that suits both codes. That's something that needs to be looked at down the line.

I know the IRFU wants to grow the sevens game, but we must grow the 15s just as much - it can't all be sevens focused.

It's not the first time it's happened. In 2017, players were withdrawn because of sevens commitments before we played France at Donnybrook. We went on to win that game, but considering the number of quality players missing this time around, it's a massive ask for Ireland to get a result at Welford Road on Sunday.

Hopefully it's the last time we see a disruption of this nature because it's unfair on the players.

Sam Monaghan's injury is a big blow as well. Sam has been player of the tournament for Ireland. Her physicality, work-rate and skill level have been exceptional and she's become a real leader in the team.

I was looking forward to seeing her up against the likes of Poppy Cleall and Abbie Ward. She plays against them regularly at club level, but international level is a much more elevated arena so hopefully she can regain her fitness in time for the Scotland game in Belfast.

'England reaping rewards of long-term vision'

Ireland will have been pleased to secure a much-needed win against Italy. Not only did they get the job done in front of a great crowd in Cork, but the collective performance was much improved too in terms of unforced errors.

In saying that, facing England away is an entirely different proposition. They are hands down the best team in the world and they've proven that with their recent results.

They've said at times they haven't been playing their best rugby, but they're still putting 50 points on teams, so it shows the standards they hold themselves to.

What we're seeing now with England is the result of investment and belief in a programme. They took a chance by going professional before the 2017 World Cup, but now they are reaping the rewards of that long-term vision.

They're such a cohesive unit and that comes from familiarity of time together - both on and off the pitch. When you're a professional outlet you get the opportunities to not only play together but recover and conduct analysis sessions together - it all adds up and enhances the cohesion and skill level within the squad.

Whatever way you look at it, it's going to be a massive challenge for Ireland. It's important for Ireland to focus on what we'd call 'mini wins' - that can be at the breakdown or set-piece or in defence like a set-piece maul, because we've seen some of England's mauls go on for 20-plus metres.

In an attacking sense, Ireland must remember to play heads-up rugby and not go into their shell. After all, this is a chance for them to showcase what they can do against the best players in the world, and they will be relishing such a stiff test of their credentials.

There was always a different edge to the build-up to an England game because of what it means to both countries.

Playing England brings a different mentality and I'm sure a lot of players will have that. Some of the Irish players are facing England for the first time so trying to control their energy will be a new challenge for them.

If they manage to channel that pre-game mix of nervous and excited energy into a disciplined performance, there could be positives to take away from Welford Road before welcoming Scotland to Kingspan Stadium.

Ciara Griffin was speaking to BBC Sport's Matt Gault.

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