The Wolfhounds and Clovers will hope to maintain Irish supremacy in the Celtic Challenge when they kick off the expanded second edition of the women’s cross-border competition in Cork on Friday.
Ireland’s sole representatives in the three-team Celtic Challenge 2023, Combined Provinces XV, secured the inaugural title with four wins from four matches in January and February.
Building on the success of that first season the tournament, organised by Irish Rugby, Scottish Rugby and the Welsh Rugby Union, and supported by World Rugby, will return this weekend with two teams from each nation competing across five weeks.
The quest for the title gets underway with a round of derby matches as Wolfhounds take on Clovers in Cork on Friday, Edinburgh Rugby meet Glasgow Warriors at Hive Stadium on Saturday and Brython Thunder play Welsh rivals Gwalia Lightning at Rodney Parade on New Year’s Day.
Each team will play five matches in a round-robin home or away format, with the 2023-24 champion crowned following the final round of fixtures on 3 February, 2024.
The Celtic Challenge was devised as a pathway to help players in the three competing nations take the step from age-grade international and senior club rugby to the test arena. World Rugby Women’s Breakthrough Player of the Year 2023 nominee, Francesca McGhie was among those who did just that this year.
Gwalia Lightning head coach Catrina Nicholas-McLaughlin understands the benefits of such a structure, having been a player in Wales U19 and Development squads before embarking on a 60-cap test career.
Nicholas-McLaughlin has since worked with Wales U18 as head coach, Wales U20 as assistant coach and the senior squad at WXV 1 2023 as part of the Gallagher High Performance Academy.
She has picked a young and exciting squad for the Celtic Challenge that includes one player, 19-year-old full-back Nel Metcalfe, who made the step up from U18 to full Wales selection in just over a year.
As she looks ahead to the start of Celtic Challenge 2023-24, Nicholas-McLaughlin knows her time as coach will be measured by how many players she can help tread a similar path on the road to Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025 and 2029. However, she hopes they will get there by playing without fear.
“Most certainly, the number of players that I see become professional athletes and also play internationally, that's what I would judge success as,” she told World Rugby.
“But also on the field, success for us would be the girls playing in a certain way, in a certain style that allows them a freedom to play this running, exciting game that we want to play and have the confidence [to do so].
“One of the key words that we use is brave. So, to be brave enough to let the ball go, make an offload, put the kick in that potentially they may not have had the confidence to do.
“Nel Metcalfe is a prime example of a player who's been with us from 18s, she's gone into 20s and she's been capped internationally, all within an 18-month window. If we could see another one or two of those players, whether it's this year or going into the World Cup, break through those ceilings that would be great, and then I suppose the biggest measure would be the World Cup in 2029.
“How many players can we have in 2029, who've come through the 18s, 20s, Celtic Challenge and are now representing Wales? That would be a measure of success for myself.”
Expanding on the style of play she hopes to see from her Lightning squad, Nicholas-McLaughlin backed her players to find “creative” solutions to the challenges they encounter on the pitch.
“You may very well see some unusual bravery and offloads that happen within our 22, if that is on and the players can make that decision to go, ‘OK, we can risk it here because this is a good decision to make’,” she added.
“So, one of the biggest things that we’re trying to instil is the confidence in the girls to make a decision and back themselves.”
Something that Nicholas-McLaughlin certainly has confidence in is the Celtic Challenge and its viability as a performance league for Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
“I’m really privileged to be a product of a pathway,” she said.
“You can see already the momentum that is growing. It's grown so much momentum over what is an 18-month period, a really short period of time.
“The women's game in Wales is growing at an exponential rate. It's just a massive hope now that with the Celtic Challenge, the clubs, universities and other nations can really back what it has the potential to be.
“It has the potential to be a fantastic Celtic league which will allow ourselves, Scotland and Ireland to play competitive fixtures against each other and allow our international and future international players [to experience] the highest club playing standards we possibly can offer.”