It may have been a difficult start to the TikTok Women’s Six Nations for Ireland, but hooker Neve Jones has faith that the team can turn a corner sooner rather than later.
Following a first round defeat to Wales at the RDS, in front of a record crowd of 6,113 for a standalone Women’s Six Nations game on these shores, Greg McWilliams’ charges also lost out to France in Toulouse last weekend.
Awaiting them at Musgrave Park this evening are familiar rivals Italy, who have suffered losses to France and England so far in the 2022 Championship. Tickets are available to purchase here.
This will be the first time for this Ireland team to play on Leeside and Jones, who is set for her fourth consecutive start in the green jersey, says there is a strong unity of purpose within the squad ahead of the Cork clash.
“There’s a lot of strong characters in the squad and they’re very good at pulling players together and building that cohesion,” said the 23-year-old front rower.
“Yes, we’d a tough game against France last week but we put our heads down again this week and worked on a few things and regrouped as a team.
“Can’t wait to get back onto the field and put that into practice. We know as a squad what we need to do. “
Jones packed down with Linda Djougang and Katie O’Dwyer in Ireland’s starting front row for the opening two rounds. Leinster captain Christy Haney takes over from the latter for the Italy game.
Now playing her club rugby at Gloucester-Hartpury in England’s Premier 15s, Jones has brought an impressive physical edge to her play in this year’s Six Nations – making a terrific 23 tackles against Wales alone.
This is something she has worked on since a very young age at her home club of Ballymena RFC and also Malone, whom she joined as a 14-year-old. The past couple of years has really seen her defensive work di lei coming to the fore.
It backtracks to when I was a kid, I was the only girl with the boys in mini rugby. My Dad had me out on the back field at home practicing tackling with him and then, just as the game progresses, tackling is a big part of the game and I like a challenge.
“Playing in the Premier 15s, the girls play at that level week in, week out. I’ve learned so much about being smarter around the jackal and the tackle. I’m constantly learning and growing as a player. “
While Gloucester is where she lines out at the moment, Jones was still with Malone when she made her Ireland debut against Italy in October 2020. This was the first game Ireland played during the Covid-19 pandemic and it took place behind closed doors at Energia Park.
As surreal as it was, that 21-7 victory over the Italians represented a major milestone for both Jones and Malone. By making the cut on that day, she became the first women’s international in the history of the Belfast club.
28 players from the Malone men’s section have pulled on the green jersey, six of whom have also featured for the British & Irish Lions, but Jones was the very first female to do so. She retains fond memories of her time di lei at Gibson Park.
“I’ve actually got a jersey framed to put up in the clubhouse because Malone have done so much for me over the years,” admitted the Ballymena native.
“If they hadn’t been there when I was 13 I’d probably not be playing rugby or where I am now, so credit to Malone. I’m grateful every day for what they’ve done for me. “
While many players in the squad – Eimear Considine, Sam Monaghan, Lucy Mulhall and Stacey Flood among them – have started out playing GAA before transitioning to rugby, the summer of 2020 saw Jones doing the opposite.
As the island of Ireland came out of lockdown, she was forced to wait a while longer for the return of rugby with the contact nature of the sport meaning it resumed competitive action at a later date than most other codes.
After being urged on by a couple of her Malone team-mates, she linked up with the East Belfast Ladies Gaeilc footballers. This was the first club to be set up in that particular area of the north for almost 50 years, and Jones featured extensively for the club during their Down Junior Championship campaign.
It was not entirely a case of taking to it like a duck to water, but it was an experience that the former Ulster Under-18 Interprovincial title-winning captain cherished nonetheless.
“I always say Gaelic footballers make good rugby players, but it’s not necessarily the other way around! I gave it my best shot.
“Absolutely loved it, but a lot of running in the sport. I think I’ll stick to the rugby for now, but if I get the chance to give Gaelic football another go I’ll definitely do so, ”she added.