big talk bemand
New Ireland head coach Scott Bemand has just overseen his side’s first win in the 2024 Guinness Women’s Six Nations - one that has been on the cards since opening day.

The team’s heads were held high after defeats in round one and two - 38-17 in France and 21-27 at home to Italy - and for good reason: the progress was there for all to see on the pitch following some difficult years.

On his arrival in camp back in September of last year, Bemand recognised the need for a change in mindset “in terms of what was achievable”. He pointed to the new and upcoming generation of players who have helped with this. “There’s some young talent coming through, so we’ve got to harness the power of that and get it onto the pitch,” said Bemand. “There are a couple of players coming through in the front row that are young and will have long careers ahead of them. Dannah O’Brien at fly-half was only 18 a year ago, and she’s got a lovely left boot. They’re developing very very quickly into the international space, almost getting better week on week.”

In terms of this year’s Championship, he wasn’t wrong with that last sentence. Last Saturday, the 36-5 scoreline against Wales was a fair reflection of Ireland’s superiority in Cork. Established players like loosehead Linda Djougang are leading from the front, while youngsters such as back rower Aoife Wafer are beginning to flourish.

When Bemand takes Ireland to Twickenham this weekend for an enormous clash with England - for which 45,000 tickets have already been sold - he does so not only as an Englishman, but as a former lead coach of the Red Roses. In that previous life, he was involved in six Championship titles (including five Grand Slams) during a spell that saw England reach number one in the world and go on a record-breaking 30-match winning run.

“The game at Twickenham will be a massive opportunity,” said the former Bath and Leicester scrum-half. “A lot of our girls won’t have played in front of that many people. Playing in front of that kind of crowd is where we want to take the game.”

The larger crowds are in keeping with the rest of the game, according to Bemand: “The product that’s being put out on the pitch is growing rapidly, getting better. More excitement, faster running, more tries, smarter tactical nous. The game’s moving really fast and hopefully people can get on the back of that and support it.”

One of Bemand’s first big decisions as head coach came late last year as Ireland prepared for WXV3 in Dubai. The 45-year-old revealed that back rowers Sam Monaghan and Edel McMahon - former Wasps teammates - would co-captain their country. As modern a move as it may seem, it had its roots back in Bemand’s club days.

“My first experience of co-captains was at Bath, but before that I was captained by the great Martin Johnson,” explained Bemand, referring to the legendary Championship- and World Cup-winning skipper. “In terms of what leadership is and how it works, I’ve been in some great environments. When Jonno was captain he had Martin Corry, he had Lewis Moody, amongst others, and both those guys went on to captain England. Some people want to talk, some people want to collaborate - that’s how leadership groups are. That mix can bring the best out of the group.

“Sam and Edel work brilliantly together. They’re good mates and they know how to feed off each other for any scenario they find themselves in. One’s bad cop, the other one’s good cop; one can be the heartbeat, the other one can be the general. They don’t stay exclusively in those roles, so they’re fantastic co-constructors of the team environment, which gives it the performance edge. I’m really happy with them both.”

It’s players like Monaghan and McMahon who are driving the team culture. “That’s how environments work these days,” Bemand said. “We’ve been through a big piece around a cultural reset, but we’ve put [what happens on the pitch] at the centre of it. So call it our training identity: how we train, how we want to play, how we perform in that arena. If you know what you want to achieve there, all things off the pitch will generally feed into that. They’re mutually dependent, so you need a strong sense of connection to push each other hard on the pitch. We’re pretty happy with where our girls are at and we’ll keep growing into that space.”

According to Bemand, philosophy is important, but equally important is the ability to be adaptable. “You have to be open to that. The same thing doesn’t work for the same group on two different days,” he said. “You do have to know when to dial it back; or if you’re going to go high challenge, you have to go high support. The needs of the group at any point in a week or any point of any competition need to be taken into consideration.

“You could be on the back of a bunch of wins, in which case how do you keep that performance edge? Or you could have picked up a couple of losses: how do you then get them to put their best foot forwards when they get back out there?

“It’s an ever-evolving picture, but that’s the craft of coaching.”

England v Ireland kicks off this Saturday at Twickenham Stadium at 14:15.