Six Nations: Ireland coach praises defence’s ‘great work’ ahead of Italy test

Danaher pleased with ‘buy-in’ from group, which will be boosted by return of offloading queen Sam Monaghan

By any yardstick, Ireland’s defensive effort in their opening Guinness Women’s Six Nations game last Saturday was a marked improvement on previous meetings with the athletic and powerful French team.

Compared with last season’s 53-3 defeat by Les Bleus in Cork, Ireland made more tackles last Saturday (175 compared with 135) yet missed way fewer too (17 against 43). They also leaked fewer line breaks (11 compared with six) and conceding fewer tries (eight as against five).

Of course, the metric that matters most to new defence coach Declan Danaher is “points conceded”.

“And then the reasons behind why we’ve conceded those points,” he added. “It’s like a paper trail, isn’t it? So, there will be reasons why and it tends to be no one individual, it tends to be a system or a group error or it could be fatigue, but that’s always what’s interested me, forensically going back.”

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But it wasn’t just the numbers that offered encouraging signs of an upturn in fortunes. All the pre-match soundings had suggested the players had bought into Danaher’s methods. They duly put their shoulders to the wheel and into the tackles, with improved technique, whereas last season there had been too many flailing arms.

“I have had a real buy-in from the group,” said Danaher after the squad’s Wednesday session. “And I have made a real effort to get to know them individually as well, so you get to have those interactions and maybe then they start to potentially care about an important area, but one that is only a part of the overall game.

“I take as much joy in what we do in the attacking game. I would love for us to be all-round at the weekend,” he added in reference to Sunday’s second-round game against Italy. Ireland will be boosted by the return of the offloading queen, Sam Monaghan, but will be wary of an Italian side who beat them 24-7 in Parma last year.

“I watched the game on Sunday and I think for about 30 minutes they put it up to England, didn’t they?” said Danaher in reference to Italy’s opening 48-0 loss, when England’s fitness told after they were restricted to a 10-0 lead at half-time.

“In the end England’s power sort of gave them the control to go on and win the game. I think they [Italy] are going to come with a lot of intent to move the ball and we’re going to have to be prepared for that, and offloads.”

Danaher also noted the problems Ireland had in containing France’s lineout maul, which yielded two of their three second-half tries.

“That’s an area they’re good at anyway and they’ll probably come to try and focus there. So our forwards will have a big opportunity to stop them when they come in our 22, be prepared for them to move the ball, and then we’ll see after that.

“But like I said, the better we get our attack, our set piece, and continue to grow those areas, takes a little bit of pressure off the ‘D’ and we’ve done great work this week. We’re just off the back of a training session now and the attack was pretty tasty.”

A former backrower, Danaher spent his entire career at London Irish, first as their longest-serving player in the pro era, and then for seven seasons as defence coach under Declan Kidney before the club went into administration. This is quite a change then.

“Yeah, of course you think about it, but I looked at it and thought, ‘what a challenge – two things I’d never done before’. Probably a little bit out of my comfort zone. I was somewhere for 24 years, probably a little bit comfortable, and all of a sudden you get an opportunity to do something like this and after Sunday I’ve reflected on it and yeah, it was completely the right decision. What an opportunity to work with a great group of people in a very cool organisation that’s made me feel very welcome coming in.

“I just see it as an amazing challenge that’s going to hopefully make me a better coach, and if I become a better coach then hopefully I’m trying to make the girls better as well on the back of that.”

It is said that women players, being more inquisitive by nature, ask more questions.

“I’ve got two daughters! So, I’m pretty used to it,” said Danaher.

“Do they ask more questions? I can only talk from my experience with this group and I just think they’re interested in getting better and I’ve said to them that if there’s anything they want to talk about then I’m here to chat through things, whether that’s as a group or individuals.

“Maybe the boys were a bit bored with me, so I probably didn’t get as many questions, but it’s been great. There’s a genuine interest. They want to get better and it makes me a better coach because I probably have to take a little bit more time thinking about how I explain things in certain areas – whether that’s defensive lineouts, defence off scrum – which is a good thing.

“So yeah, I’m enjoying that.”

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