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Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship

Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent

This weekend marks the start of an important few months for women’s rugby in Ireland, as the Vodafone interprovincial championship takes centre stage ahead of a busy upcoming period.

With Munster aiming for their fourth title on the bounce, last year’s runners-up Leinster will be seeking revenge, while Connacht and Ulster look to close the gap.

The four-round series promises to deliver plenty of thrilling action over the coming weeks, which can help ignite the latest new era for Irish women’s rugby.

It has been a summer of change at the top, with Scott Bemand having been confirmed as the new Ireland head coach. Bemand arrives from England, where he was a key part of the Red Roses’ high performance unit.

Ireland will be hoping Bemand can inspire success on these shores, as he replaces Greg McWilliams at the helm.

The experienced Bemand, who played for Harlequins, Leicester and Bath, isn’t due to officially begin his new role until later this month, but you can be sure the incoming Ireland boss will be keeping a very close eye on the interpros. 

TG4 are again on board to offer broadcasting coverage, which is great news for supporters who are unable to make it to games.

As Munster kick off their title defence on Saturday against Ulster in Armagh (3.0), before Connacht host Leinster at the Sportsground later that evening (5.15), the interpros are set to begin with a bang.

With all roads leading to the final on September 2, the Energia All-Ireland League (AIL) Women’s Division will then begin in late September before Ireland’s WXV3 campaign in Dubai in October.

Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations campaign has left them scrambling to make up ground in the third tier of World Rugby’s new tournament, but the IRFU are confident that their new season plan will provide their top players with consistent access to high-level game-time.

The interpros and the Energia AIL are key components of that, particularly as Ireland did not embark on a summer tour on the back of last year’s historic trip to Japan.

Bemand will be hoping to see Ireland’s stars kick on for the respective provinces, while the next few weeks provide a major chance for younger talent to stake their claim.

One of the first tasks facing Bemand will be to select a new captain following Nichola Fryday’s decision to retire from international rugby.

Fryday has been a stalwart for her country during difficult times over the last couple of seasons, and the influential second-row leaves a big void to fill.

Those lucky enough to represent their provinces will have their own individual goals and aspirations, with the prospect of a clean slate on the international front offering even more motivation to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves throughout the campaign. 

For Munster, that means picking up where they left off over the last few years.

Niamh Briggs, who will also be part of Bemand’s backroom staff, heads up an exciting Munster coaching ticket, alongside her ex-team-mate Fiona Hayes, with the province’s head of rugby operations Ian Costello, as well as former Ireland internationals Ian Keatley, Tommy O’Donnell and Sean Cronin also on hand to offer their expertise.

Munster were unstoppable last year, winning all three games en route to the title, and with that in mind, it is no surprise to see Briggs sticking with Nicole Cronin as captain, and Dorothy Wall as vice-skipper.

The Ireland duo are key voices in the Munster setup, and their experience will be crucial to helping ensure that the nine uncapped players settle into the squad.

One of those fresh faces eager to impress is Beth Buttimer, who has already represented Ireland at U-18 level. The young Tipperary back-row is an exciting prospect.

As Leinster look to go one better this time around, head coach Tania Rosser will be hoping Blackrock College’s Energia AIL success can provide the springboard for her province to end Munster’s dominance.

Rosser has selected eight Blackrock players in her extended squad, including Ireland internationals Hannah O’Connor and Christy Haney, who shared the captaincy duties last season.

Jenny Murphy’s absence will be sorely felt, but Leinster have a wealth of talent at their disposal. Ireland prop Linda Djougang is an outstanding operator, while Aoife Dalton, Aoife Wafer, Natasja Behan, Dannah O’Brien and Leah Tarpey are all contracted to the IRFU.

Connacht have lost plenty of experience on the back of the retirements of former Ireland internationals Mary Healy, Laura Feely and Mairead Coyne, but they will be keen to build on last season’s impressive win over Ulster.

With Leinster and Munster proving too strong for the Westerners, Connacht have a chance to cause an upset on the opening weekend, as they welcome the champions to Galway.

Clara Barrett has caught the eye, with her two tries in that win against Ulster highlighting her potential. The former Ireland U-18 winger will be keen to impress again this season.

There have also been plenty of changes up north during the off-season, as Murray Houston takes charge of Ulster’s interpro campaign. Houston has made some shrewd recruitments to his coaching staff, as current Ireland scrum-half Kathryn Dane (currently sidelined due to health issues) joins the setup along with former internationals Grace Davitt and Amy Davis.

Davitt, a Grand Slam winner in 2013, will focus on technical skills, while current Ulster prop Eric O’Sullivan will also lend his support as scrum coach to an Ulster side bolstered by Ireland forwards Brittany Hogan and Sadhbh McGrath.

Munster are once again the team to beat, but this interpro series looks set to be another tight affair, with so much on the line.

As the page turns and the promise of brighter days ahead, a successful interpro championship would be ideal preparation for the Energia AIL before international rugby returns.

The stage is set for an exciting few months.