Joy Neville believes it is “inevitable” that the historic feat of a woman refereeing men’s Six Nations and World Cup Test matches will be accomplished.

Neville, a trailblazer for aspiring female officials during her ground-breaking career as a referee, will exit the international stage after taking charge of Sunday’s Women’s Six Nations game between France and Italy in Paris, when the crowd will include her wife Simona and young son Alfie.

But while refereeing retirement beckons for the 40-year-old, she will continue to play a key role as World Rugby’s head coach for elite women officials in the 15s game.

Scotland’s Hollie Davidson this season became the first female assistant referee in a men’s Six Nations Test, while England’s Sara Cox has refereed in the Gallagher Premiership and South African Aimee Barrett-Theron is a regular on the United Rugby Championship circuit.

“It is going to happen and it will be a completely-deserved appointment,” Neville told the PA news agency.

“It is inevitable. The calibre of female referees that we have in place now is significant.

“I know a lot of the girls so well, how they work and I am just excited about supporting them further in ensuring they have the support to progress and help them achieve whatever goals they have in mind.”

Neville’s 11-year refereeing career began in a Limerick schools match at under-15 level and she can end it by looking back on numerous achievements.

She controlled the 2017 women’s World Cup final between England and New Zealand and was the first woman to referee men’s matches in European and URC competitions.

Neville also took charge of a men’s Rugby Europe Conference match between Norway an Denmark, while in 2017 she was named World Rugby referee of the year and last autumn became the first female to be part of a men’s World Cup officiating panel, working as a television match official.

And all that after an outstanding playing career that saw her win 70 Ireland caps, captain her country, play in two World Cups and win a Six Nations Grand Slam.

“I felt it was time to take a step away for family reasons,” Neville added. “Refereeing demands an awful lot of commitment and time away from home.

“And while I have enjoyed every single experience and I have learnt so much from the difficult moments and enjoyed the great moments, there comes a point that you realise it is time to enjoy a more normal lifestyle!”

Recalling how she became involved in refereeing, Neville said: “It was one or two days after I announced my retirement as a player.

“David McHugh (former international referee who worked for the Irish Rugby Football Union) called me and was coming to me with something that would demand even more time away and commitment.

“I had never for one second contemplated becoming a referee. When people retire from the game, they automatically think about giving back by volunteering, coaching and so on, but no one really properly considers refereeing.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t find it difficult at the start, going into a new environment, learning a new skill, learning from my mistakes, understanding different people-management. To be honest, refereeing can teach you so much.

“Yes, I have had difficult moments, but I have learnt from them and learnt how to cope and deal with those situations.

“I remember I refereed my first professional game – Southern Kings versus Ulster in Belfast – and all the media attention was about the first female to referee a professional game and all I have ever tried to achieve was drop ‘the first female’. It is just a referee.

“Just make it the norm and thankfully I think we have broken down that door.”

World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont paid tribute to Neville ahead of her final game.

He told the World Rugby website: “As someone who continues to blaze a trail for aspiring female and male referees, we are delighted that Joy will be continuing to channel her experience, passion and expertise into helping our international match officials be the best they can be as World Rugby’s elite women’s 15s match officials head coach.”

Brodie Retallick has won the vote to start in the second-row for New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final against South Africa.

Retallick comes in for Sam Whitelock in the only change from the All Blacks side that overpowered Argentina 44-6 in the semi-final last Friday.

Whitelock replaced Retallick against Argentina but now moves to the bench for Saturday’s final at the Stade de France in Paris.

The 35-year-old Whitelock will become the first man to play in three World Cup finals, should he come off the bench.

Tight-head prop Nepo Laulala replaces Fletcher Newell on the All Blacks bench.

Brothers Scott, Jordie and Beauden Barrett all feature in the starting XV, which openside flanker Sam Cane captains.

The All Blacks, like South Africa, are chasing a record fourth title after triumphs in 1987, 2011 and 2015.

New Zealand boss Ian Foster has warned his players “not to get softened” by the acclaim which followed their thrilling World Cup win over Ireland ahead of a semi-final showdown with Argentina.

The All Blacks booked a last-four spot by upsetting Andy Farrell’s men with a pulsating 28-24 victory in Paris.

New Zealand return to Stade de France on Friday evening and are red-hot favourites to progress to a final against either England or reigning champions South Africa.

Head coach Foster feels “being patted on the back” following a statement last-eight victory over the Irish derailed the Kiwis in the 2019 tournament and is eager to avoid history repeating itself.

“The best way to recover is to refocus really quickly on what the next challenge is and not to listen too much to any praise you’re given as a group for a performance,” said Foster, who was assistant to Steve Hansen four years ago when New Zealand lost to England in the semi-finals.

“Not to go down that path, not to get softened because everyone’s patting you on the back saying you played well.

“That’s not a good place to be as a team.

“I love the way the team has buckled down, we’ve redefined the challenge for us as a group, we’re not satisfied with where we are now and when you’re clear about your goal for the week the recovery comes along pretty quickly.

“You know that if we’re not right on Friday night at Stade de France, it’s going to be a sad old night and we don’t want it to be like that.

“You get people talking to you about tomorrow and trying to take your eyes off today.

“In 2019 we probably didn’t stop being patted on the back after the quarter-final, hence some of my language today and we’re just trying to dial this back, keep things simple and let’s just worry about Friday.”

New Zealand’s starting XV shows two changes, with wing Mark Telea and lock Sam Whitelock in for Leicester Fainga’anuku and Brodie Retallick.

Telea was dropped for last weekend’s clash with Ireland due to a breach of team protocols.

Foster says the 26-year-old, who has scored three tries in the tournament, has served his punishment.

“That’s the team we think is best for this week,” he said.

“Mark’s done his time. He made a mistake, he accepted what was happening.

“But you don’t linger in that space. He’s been our form winger through this tournament and we really have a lot of faith in him and believe he’s in a good place to play this game.

“It’s a chance for us to get Mark back on the park and I know he’s excited.”

Underdogs Argentina have won two of the past seven meetings between the nations, including a landmark first success on New Zealand soil – 25-18 in Christchurch – in last year’s Rugby Championship.

Foster is braced for a “heck of a game”.

“You’ve never heard us say we’re favourites,” he said. “We know that these games are do-or-die.

“It’s the best team on the night that wins it. We know Argentina has done that to us. We’re not buying into anything about favouritism or underdogs.

“They are perhaps an underrated team worldwide that has got a really rich history of perhaps overachieving at World Cups.

“They have done a fantastic job to get here at the same level as we are. It’s going to be a heck of a game.”

Ireland face New Zealand in Paris seeking to reach a maiden semi-final at the Rugby World Cup.

Andy Farrell’s men go into Saturday’s last-eight clash on a remarkable 17-match winning run but face a formidable challenge in the form of the three-time world champions.

Here, the PA news agency highlights some of the major talking points.

Banishing the quarter-final curse

Ireland have topped the world rankings for 15 months and are favourites for the mouth-watering Stade de France showdown. Yet the Irish have never won a World Cup knockout match. Seven times previously they have reached the last eight of the tournament and seven times they have been sent home. The last of those early exits came at the hands of the All Blacks four years ago. Ireland have improved markedly since then and have far greater mental resolve. Farrell’s in-form side will equal the record for consecutive Test wins by a tier one nation (18) by banishing the quarter-final curse. However, standing in their way is one of the toughest challenges in world rugby.

All Blacks out for revenge

Ireland had to wait 111 years for a first Test win over New Zealand. But, having done so in memorable fashion in Chicago seven years ago, the Irish now hold the upper hand in terms of recent meetings. Farrell masterminded a stunning 2-1 tour success over the All Blacks last summer and the stage is set for another unforgettable encounter. New Zealand are not used to losing on home soil and will be out for revenge.  Kiwi full-back Beauden Barrett said: “There are a lot of us who are pretty keen to get one up on them and still we’re hurting from what happened last year.” Ireland’s quest will be aided by the backing of tens of thousands of travelling fans.

About Schmidt

An intriguing sub-plot is the presence of former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt in the Kiwi camp. The 58-year-old led Ireland into the last two World Cups before joining his native country’s coaching team last summer after his six-year tenure was emphatically ended by the All Blacks in Tokyo in 2019. New Zealand coach Ian Foster outlined plans to tap into Schmidt’s extensive knowledge of the Irish. Yet veteran Ireland wing Keith Earls played down the merits of doing so, saying: “We genuinely don’t use any of the habits that Joe taught us.”

Return of the Mack


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Ireland were nursing a few concerning injury issues following a bruising Pool B finale against Scotland. Yet head coach Farrell has been able to name an unchanged starting XV. Mack Hansen looked to be a major doubt after sitting out training early in the week but took part in Friday’s captain’s run with a heavily-strapped right calf. Fellow wing James Lowe (eye) has also been passed fit. Only lock James Ryan, who sustained a wrist issue against the Scots, is missing from arguably Ireland’s strongest line-up. Lowe, meanwhile, is one of three New Zealand-born players in Ireland’s team, in addition to centre Bundee Aki and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park.

Disciplinary disruption

New Zealand’s preparations have been disrupted by a disciplinary storm in the build-up to the clash. Star wing Mark Telea misses out after being dropped due to a breach of team protocol. Foster insisted the issue was “nothing major” but still felt compelled to punish a player whose emergence on the international scene has been central to the All Blacks’ improvement since their series defeat to Ireland last July. Telea, who is believed to have broken a curfew, has three tries in the tournament, including a double in the opening-night defeat to hosts France. Leicester Fainga’anuku is the man to benefit after claiming a hat-trick in the Pool A thrashing of Uruguay.

Marseille and Paris take centre stage when the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals unfold on Saturday and Sunday.

Four intriguing contests see Ireland meeting New Zealand and France tackling reigning world champions South Africa at Stade de France, while Marseille plays host to Wales against Argentina and England taking on Fiji.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the key quarter-final talking points.

Warren Gatland has worked his magic

After Wales won a solitary game during last season’s Six Nations, any prospect of them becoming World Cup semi-finalists seven months later could have been described as fanciful in the extreme. But head coach Warren Gatland has come up trumps once again in his second stint at the helm, transforming Wales through an unbeaten four-match run in their pool, collecting 19 points out of a possible 20 and going into Saturday’s clash against the Pumas as firm favourites. It would be Wales’ third semi-final appearance in the last four World Cup campaigns under Gatland if they get there, and Argentina have their work cut out to stop them, especially given patchy form during the group phase when they qualified as Pool D runners-up behind England.

In-form Ireland to banish last-eight curse?

Ireland have topped the world rankings for 15 months and are favourites for Saturday’s mouthwatering Paris showdown with three-time world champions New Zealand. Yet the Irish have never won a World Cup knockout match. Seven times previously they have reached the last eight of the tournament and seven times they have been sent home. The last of those early exits came at the hands of the formidable All Blacks four years ago. Head coach Andy Farrell has masterminded three wins from four meetings since that 46-14 hammering in Tokyo, including a historic tour triumph on New Zealand soil last summer, and instilled great mental resolve in his players. His team will equal the record for consecutive Test wins by a tier one nation (18) by banishing Ireland’s quarter-final curse. However, standing in their way is one of the toughest challenges in world rugby and an All Blacks side intent on revenge.

Pantomime villains England

It will be akin to shooting Bambi if England are to reach the semi-finals due to Fiji’s status as darlings of the World Cup, willed on by neutrals who desire the fairy-tale scenario of a Pacific Islands team progressing into the latter stages of the tournament. Number eight Billy Vunipola has acknowledged his side are “public enemy number one”, but points out that historical anti-English sentiment means they are well versed in fighting against popular opinion. On the favourites’ side is that the vast numbers of red rose fans who have followed their team in France will turn the Stade Velodrome into a home ground. Fiji, after pushing Wales to the limit in their opening match, have struggled to regain such fluency and it could prove a game too far for them.

French flair or Springboks power?

The second of the weekend’s two box-office Paris quarter-finals pits the expectant hosts against the defending champions. Whoever prevails on Sunday will view it as a huge obstacle overcome in their quest to win the tournament. France will have the backing of a frenzied home support sensing an opportunity for their team to claim the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time. Les Bleus have not lost on home soil since Scotland defeated them in Paris behind closed doors in a Six Nations match two-and-a-half years ago. The Springboks – chasing World Cup glory for a fourth time – entered the tournament in scintillating form and began with an impressively comfortable win over Scotland before their momentum was halted slightly by a narrow loss to Ireland in their penultimate pool match. The contrast of French flair and the ferocious physicality of South Africa promises to deliver an epic contest to conclude the weekend spectacular.

In-form Ireland face three-time champions New Zealand seeking to improve their wretched quarter-final record at the Rugby World Cup.

The Irish are through to the last eight of the competition for the eighth time but have never progressed beyond it.

Here, the PA news agency looks back on Ireland’s last five quarter-final matches.

France 36 Ireland 12 (Durban, 1995)

Following successive last-eight exits to Australia in the first two editions of the tournament, Ireland suffered a similar fate at the hands of France.


Twenty-six points from the boot of Thierry Lacroix, plus tries from Philippe Saint-Andre and Emile Ntamack, did the damage.

Eric Elwood’s four penalties were insufficient for Gerry Murphy’s men.

France 43 Ireland 21 (Melbourne, 2003)

Ireland lost a quarter-final play-off to Argentina in 1999 before suffering more last-eight frustration against France four years later.

Les Bleus initially claimed four unanswered tries before Kevin Maggs’ score and two from Brian O’Driscoll salvaged some pride.

Frederic Michalak also kicked 23 points for the dominant French, who were beaten by eventual champions England in the semi-finals.

Ireland 10 Wales 22 (Wellington, 2011)

Ireland, who suffered pool-stage elimination in 2007, topped Pool C ahead of Australia before crashing out to their Six Nations rivals.

Declan Kidney’s side were level at 10-10 early in the second period after Keith Earls’ try and five points from Ronan O’Gara wiped out Wales’ lead.

But the Irish were second best and had no answer to decisive scores from Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies.

Ireland 20 Argentina 43 (Cardiff, 2015)

Injury-ravaged Ireland were savaged by the Pumas.

Without influential performers Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne, the stunned Irish trailed 17-0 inside 13 minutes.

Tries from Luke Fitzgerald and Jordi Murphy cut the deficit to just three points but four-try Argentina emphatically prevented a fight back to claim a famous win.

New Zealand 46 Ireland 14 (Tokyo, 2019)

Optimism was high ahead of Ireland’s trip to Japan four years ago. Yet head coach Joe Schmidt endured a torrid farewell as his side were ripped apart by the reigning champions.

The merciless All Blacks ran in seven tries on a punishing evening for their error-strewn opponents.

Robbie Henshaw’s score and a penalty try were scant consolation as Ireland suffered their heaviest World Cup loss.

Ireland will take on three-time champions New Zealand on Saturday evening in a crunch Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Paris.

The Irish had to wait 111 years for a first Test victory over the All Blacks but have had the upper hand recently by winning four of the last six meetings.

Here, the PA news agency picks out some memorable recent matches between the two nations.

New Zealand 60 Ireland 0 (Hamilton, 2012)

An unforgettable match for all the wrong reasons from an Irish perspective.

A maiden win over the All Blacks seemed a million miles away just over a decade ago following the country’s record defeat on a humiliating evening.

Ruthless New Zealand wrapped up a 3-0 series success with a nine-try demolition of an Ireland team containing current squad members Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony.

Present-day Kiwi captain Sam Cane claimed two of the reigning world champions’ scores as Declan Kidney’s men were sent home embarrassed.

Ireland 22 New Zealand 24 (Dublin, 2013)

Aaron Cruden completed a remarkable comeback for record-breaking New Zealand by slotting a retaken conversion with the final act of a heartbreaking afternoon for the hosts.

Ireland were moments away from a milestone win after Rob Kearney’s 80-metre dash helped them lead 19-0 inside 18 minutes.

But, with the clock in the 82nd minute, Ryan Crotty’s try levelled matters.

Cruden then silenced a stunned Aviva Stadium by slotting the extras at the second attempt as the All Blacks became the first Test side in the professional era to achieve a 100 per cent record in a calendar year.

Ireland 40 New Zealand 29 (Chicago, 2016)

Ireland’s class of 2016 produced fireworks at Soldier Field on Bonfire Night to stamp their names into the history books with a landmark first triumph over the All Blacks at the 29th attempt.

Tries from Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander and Conor Murray gave Joe Schmidt’s side a commanding half-time advantage.

Simon Zebo’s score stretched the lead to 30-8 before Robbie Henshaw completed the job after the All Blacks, seeking a 19th straight win, threatened another stunning fightback by closing the gap to just four points.

Ireland 16 New Zealand 9 (Dublin, 2018)

Ireland laid down a marker ahead of the 2019 World Cup by beating the All Blacks on home soil for the first time.

Jacob Stockdale’s superb chip-and-gather try decided an absorbing contest between Test rugby’s top two sides.

Fly-half Sexton advanced his claims for the world player of the year award, which he went on to win, with the rest of his nation’s points, while Beauden Barrett’s boot kept the Kiwis in contention.

Steve Hansen’s side may have come off second best but they gained revenge 11 months later on the biggest stage in Tokyo with a thumping 46-14 quarter-final win.

New Zealand 22 Ireland 32 (Wellington, 2022)

A week on from a maiden victory over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil – 23-12 in Dunedin – Ireland made more history by wrapping up a stunning series success to climb to the top of the world rankings.

Andy Farrell’s men raced into a 19-point half-time lead in an epic encounter courtesy of tries from Josh van der Flier, Hugo Keenan and Henshaw.

The All Blacks closed to within three points in a frenetic second period before Rob Herring extinguished a Kiwi fightback to seal arguably Ireland’s finest result.

Andy Farrell believes in-form World Cup hopefuls Ireland were previously plagued by an “inferiority complex”.

Test rugby’s top-ranked nation will bid to make history against New Zealand in Paris on Saturday evening by becoming the first Irish team to progress to the semi-finals of the competition.

Head coach Farrell was assistant to Joe Schmidt when Ireland went into the 2019 tournament as the sport’s number one country only to suffer a humiliating last-eight stuffing at the hands of the formidable All Blacks.

The Englishman, who has masterminded 17 successive wins, feels Ireland are becoming better at handling the pressure of having a target on their back and must continue to do so in order to emulate the sustained success of the Kiwis.


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“I suppose an inferiority complex is what’s happened in the past as far as getting to world number one and thinking that we’re going to fall off a cliff because this shouldn’t be happening to Ireland,” said Farrell.

“But what we’ve learnt to do is throw ourselves into big challenges and try to meet them head on and embrace that.

“We don’t want to be second best, we want to be first best. But we also realise what comes with that, that people are always chasing you hard down.

“You’ve seen with the All Blacks over the last 20 years – that’s why they’re so respected because it’s very hard to stay at the top.

“The guys that are the favourites are the ones I’ve always looked at throughout my career and envied really because of how hard it is to do that.

“That’s the place we want to be because if you’re serious about getting better and being the team that you want to be, that’s the world that you’ve got to live in.”

While New Zealand are three-time world champions, Ireland have repeatedly fallen at the quarter-final hurdle.

The Six Nations champions were full of optimism going into the same stage four years ago before crashing out 46-14 to the All Blacks in Tokyo.

Farrell has committed time and effort to improving the mental resilience of his players and says they must remember Ireland are a “bloody good team” if they suffer performance anxiety this weekend at Stade de France.

“It’s another big game in front of us,” said the 48-year-old, who led his side to a historic tour success in New Zealand last summer.

“At this stage, it’s all about preparation and recovery and making sure there’s an ownership of the plan that you’re going to try and apply on the opposition at the weekend.

“We immerse ourselves with that and that’s the only way it should be. Of course things start to creep in, but we’ve tools and experience to combat all that.

“The main part is to remember that we’re a bloody good team that play together and, when we do that, you’re not on your own, so you can get away from those type of thoughts.”

Keith Earls insists in-form Ireland have eradicated habits instilled by Joe Schmidt ahead of a reunion with their former head coach in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand.

Schmidt led the Irish into the previous two World Cups, both of which ended with disappointing last-eight exits, before joining the All Blacks’ coaching team last summer.

The 58-year-old’s largely positive six-year tenure culminated in a 46-14 hammering at the hands of the Kiwis at the 2019 tournament in Japan before he was succeeded by his assistant Andy Farrell.

Schmidt is now plotting the downfall of his former employers after switching sides, with Ireland seeking to make history in Paris by stretching their winning run to 18 matches to reach a maiden semi-final.

New Zealand boss Ian Foster publicly outlined plans to tap into Schmidt’s extensive knowledge of the opposition, but Munster wing Earls dismissed the merits of doing so.

“I don’t think Joe would know anything about this squad,” said the 36-year-old. “We’re a completely different squad.

“He probably knows things about individuals but, again, we’ve all changed our habits under this coaching staff and we genuinely don’t use any of the habits that Joe taught us.

“Look, he might have a thing on a couple of individuals, but we’re certainly not the same team that played under Joe.”

Schmidt was due to join the set-up of his native New Zealand following last summer’s three-match home series against Ireland, but he was rushed in early after Covid-19 sidelined Foster and some of his staff.

The All Blacks won the first Test but lost the next two as Ireland launched their current winning streak with a historic tour triumph.

Veteran Earls believes that landmark achievement gave Ireland greater belief, which was enhanced further by this year’s Six Nations Grand Slam success.

Yet he concedes they would be foolish to underestimate the three-time world champions, who have scored 240 points and 36 tries across thrashings of Namibia, Italy and Uruguay following an opening-night defeat to hosts France.

“This tournament is a different animal,” said Earls.

“I know we have beaten New Zealand a few times in the last few years, but they have obviously taught us one or two lessons in between that and beaten us by more than one score.


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“We’re under no illusion as to what is coming at the weekend.


“People speak about New Zealand the last year or two that they’ve dipped in performances, but what we’ve seen in this World Cup, they’re starting to come back with a roar.

“After the French game it’s obviously ignited some spark in them. They’re starting to hit their stride again.

“We’re certainly not undermining New Zealand, you would be very silly to do that.


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“I have no doubt they will be highly emotional and looking for revenge and bring everything they have.”


Earls hopes to be available to add to his 101 caps after sitting out last weekend’s victory over Scotland due to a hamstring niggle.

He also missed Ireland’s landmark first win over the All Blacks in 2016 in Chicago through suspension, a result, masterminded by Schmidt, which he credits for helping to improve Ireland’s self-image.

“As Irish people, we can lack a lot of confidence and be a small bit too humble at times,” he said.

“We’ve done an awful lot of work on ourselves to believe that we can play a certain brand of rugby that can make us compete with anyone in the world.”

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw has emerged as an injury doubt ahead of Saturday’s crucial Rugby World Cup showdown with Scotland in Paris.

The 30-year-old is struggling with a “niggle” and will be assessed ahead of head coach Andy Farrell naming his matchday 23 on Thursday afternoon.

Henshaw suffered a fitness setback at the start of the tournament when he was a late withdrawal from Ireland’s bench for the 82-8 win over Romania.

He subsequently came on as a replacement in the 59-16 success over Tonga and the 13-8 victory against reigning champions South Africa.

Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell said: “Everyone came through training, but Robbie has a bit of a niggle and we’re finding out about that today.

“I’m sure there will be some information on that tomorrow.”

Henshaw has been providing back-up for in-form midfield duo Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose.

Leinster team-mate Jimmy O’Brien, Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey and Munster veteran Keith Earls are among the options to take his place in Farrell’s squad to face the Scots, if he is ruled out.

Pierre Schoeman is hellbent on extending his “miracle” World Cup beyond this weekend as he gears up for Saturday’s critical Paris showdown with Pool B rivals Ireland.

Just under two years after winning the first of his 25 caps, the South Africa-born prop is enjoying the time of his life in France as Gregor Townsend’s first-choice loosehead.

But Schoeman knows he would likely have missed out on playing for Scotland at the tournament if not for the fact the Covid-19 pandemic led to a delay in World Rugby changing the three-year residency rule to five years.

That meant the 29-year-old – who left Bulls in his homeland to join Edinburgh in 2018 – was able to make his debut in October 2021 as opposed to having to wait until this summer to become eligible, by which time it would probably have been too late for him to force his way into the World Cup squad.

“I can only say with gratitude that it is a miracle, to be honest,” he said. “It would have actually been five years but because of Covid, it was three years, so two years less.

“I would have only made my debut for Scotland now (this summer) if it wasn’t for Covid so there is always a blessing in disguise somewhere.”

Schoeman is savouring every moment of a tournament he described as the highlight of his career.

“It has been massive,” he said. “Representing Scotland at the World Cup is the best thing I have experienced in my rugby journey.

“I have been honoured and privileged to do it. And with the team we have, the management and the players are a really good group.

“It has been amazing. I have to give credit to our partners and our families for the sacrifices they have made but in the south of France, the passion they have for their rugby and having all the Scottish fans here as well, that’s massive.

“The amount of fans that came over makes you realise that you have to play a bit harder for them as well.

“It’s not just about you and the team, it’s about playing for the fans and the country you represent.

“Putting on the jersey for Scotland in a World Cup in the south of France gives you that extra fuel to prep. You want to do it 100 times.”

Schoeman and his Scotland colleagues know their World Cup adventure will end if they are not able to get a bonus-point win over Ireland on Saturday or deny their opponents a losing bonus.

The prop is unable to countenance the prospect of leaving France this weekend.

“I haven’t even thought about making plans for a holiday or time off or going back to play with my club,” he said. “It’s all this now, this week, this test, to get another three weeks or however long it is.

“We are confident, we are going to go for the win and we believe we can get the win. As a group, we are ready to go.”

Schoeman is braced for the biggest game of his career in Paris.

“There have been some big Six Nations games but this is a World Cup and we’re against the world’s best in Ireland,” he said.

“These are the games you want to play in. They are the games you want to measure yourself against, especially the set-piece battles.

“Being a prop, you want to go against the best. As a pack and as a team, we can’t wait.”

First-choice Ireland hooker Dan Sheehan is raring to go for the remainder of the Rugby World Cup after declaring his body is in “perfect” condition.

Question marks initially surrounded Sheehan’s participation in the tournament after he limped off with a foot issue during his country’s warm-up win over England on August 19.

The 25-year-old sat out bonus-point wins over Romania and Tonga before making his World Cup debut as a second-half replacement during Saturday evening’s memorable Pool B triumph over South Africa in Paris.


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Fit-again Sheehan is targeting further action when Ireland return to Stade de France on October 7 seeking to secure progression to the knockout stages in a “massive” clash with Scotland.

“For a first experience of a World Cup game, it doesn’t get much better, I don’t think, especially in a crowd like that,” he said, after his side were backed by tens of thousands of Irish fans against the Springboks.

“It’s definitely the best atmosphere I’ve played in. We fed off that a good bit.

“My body’s perfect now. I had a few weeks there where the medical staff did a great job to get me back in this time but I’ve no complaints at all now so I’ll be looking to get back into the squad.”

Victory over South Africa put Ireland in control of Pool B and propelled them to the cusp of the quarter-finals.

Yet Andy Farrell’s men, who are due to reconvene on Wednesday following a few days off, still have work to do to prevent a pool-stage exit.

Asked how much pressure beating the reigning champions takes off the Scotland match, Sheehan replied: “None. The job’s not done.

“We have a bit of luxury now that we have two weeks to lead up into the Scotland game but we can’t afford to take the foot off the gas at all.


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“The Scotland game is going to be massive. That’s obviously a massive win for us but nothing’s guaranteed at all so all eyes on Scotland now.”

The world’s number one team have won 16 matches in a row and suffered just two defeats in their last 30 outings.

Sheehan believes the remarkable run of results have helped enhance the unity in Ireland’s camp but insists Farrell’s squad must remain grounded.

“I think all of these big games bring you closer,” said the Leinster player, who is competing with provincial team-mate Ronan Kelleher and Ulster’s Rob Herring for a starting spot. “They add to the trust within the group.

“It definitely brings you tighter but you need to make sure you don’t get ahead of yourself and there’s a job to be done now against Scotland.

“We’ve huge confidence in our game plan and our approach to the games is really good. Our week’s prep has been on point for every game that we’ve won.

“We just double down on what we’re good at. We’re in a good place now and we just need to keep going.”

Beth Potter cried every day after making the switch from athletics to triathlon but she now stands on the brink of qualifying for the Paris Olympics.

The 31-year-old Scot won the Games test event in the French capital last month and a top-three finish at the World Triathlon Championship Finals in Spain on Sunday would see her meet the selection criteria for the British team.

Whether she qualifies this weekend or not, there seems little doubt Potter will be part of the British line-up next summer, joining a notable list of athletes who have competed at the Olympics in two different sports.

It was after using her summer holidays from her day job as a physics teacher to race in the 10,000 metres in Rio in 2016 that Potter decided to throw her eggs in the triathlon basket.

“I think I probably had doubts until last year,” she told the PA news agency.

“It’s been really hard. I think those around me, the guys I train with, my boyfriend and my mum and dad, will know how hard it’s been. Even that first year I was in Leeds I probably spent every day pretty upset and wondering whether I’d made the right choice. I think I probably cried every day.”

Potter used family motivation to keep her going, saying: “I always did know it was never going to happen overnight, these things never do, it always takes four or five years.

“It was in line with my sister finishing her medical degree in Sheffield. I gave myself until then, if I’m not making a living out of it by then or things are just not going how I thought they would then I’ll probably just quit and go back to the day job. Luckily I beat her to that. She’s just finished her training.”

Potter grew up doing swimming alongside her athletics but she was a cycling novice when she made the transition to triathlon aged 25.

“It’s not as easy to pick up skills like that as an adult because you have the fear, you know what’s going to happen if you come off,” she said. “It’s not like a kid where you just bounce off the ground. You know you’re going to hurt yourself.

“There was just a lot of doubt. I found that quite hard, constantly trying to believe in myself and constantly be like, it is going to work, I’m just not quite there yet. Getting to grips with a completely different sport.

“It was a very steep learning curve. Getting thrown into the world series and drowning, basically, way out of my depth. There was one way that I could race. If I had an easy swim and an easy bike then that would be fine.

“The way racing has been the last couple of years it’s not been ideal for me but now I’ve got my bike and my swim up to those levels, I’m trying to turn myself into an all-round athlete that can win from any position.

“It’s been quite good this year how I’ve managed to win and get on the podium in different events and in different race scenarios.”

Potter has put together a brilliant 2023 campaign, winning world series races in Abu Dhabi and Montreal and then getting the better of big French rival Cassandre Beaugrand in a head-to-head finish at the test event.

A repeat in Pontevedra would see the winner crowned world champion, although Potter’s main target remains booking her spot in Paris.

“My goal at the start of the season was to qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to be in the running for the world title. I knew I could be up there but I didn’t expect it to come down to the wire.

“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg where I think if I just focus on doing the little things right, I’ll probably get the Olympic qualification and finish wherever on the podium.”

Olympic silver medallist Alex Yee is in the running for the men’s title having also won the test event, and the British team look well positioned to continue their brilliant run of success in the sport next summer.

Potter is currently the leading woman in the absence of the injured Georgia Taylor-Brown, individual silver medallist in Tokyo, and her gold medal-winning mixed relay team-mate Jess Learmonth, who recently gave birth to her first child.

Potter praised the coaches in Leeds who have kept the faith through the last six years that her move to triathlon would pay off.

“They’ve stuck by me through thick and thin so I owe it to them because they believed when I was nothing,” she said. “They can see a reward now hopefully. It was a bit bonkers to do it but I definitely think it’s been the right decision.”

Andy Farrell believes the rest of the world expects Ireland to lose to South Africa and insists the mouthwatering Paris showdown is not a “do-or-die” fixture.

Test rugby’s top-ranked nation face a stern examination of their World Cup credentials as they prepare to put their 15-match winning run on the line against the formidable reigning champions in Pool B’s headline clash.

The physical Springboks have made a statement of intent by naming an imposing seven-one split of forwards and backs on the bench.

Ireland head coach Farrell talked down the significance of that tactical decision and urged his players to focus on their own performance in their bid to defy the bookmakers and their doubters at Stade de France.

“It doesn’t really bother me at all,” the Englishman said of South Africa’s so-called ‘Bomb Squad’. “It’s just about us.

“We have to be good, we have to play really well to beat the world champions.

“And rightly so because they’re in good form and, barring us and our team, our management and the Irish people all over the world, I think everyone else thinks that they’re the favourites and they’re going to win this game.

“I can see why because of the form that they’ve showed in the last couple of games but we don’t think like that. We’re ready for a tough battle and it will take it’s own course, I’m sure.

“It’s not a must-win. It’s not a do-or-die type of game but it’s pretty important to both teams, let’s put it that way.”

Ireland have the chance to qualify for the quarter-finals with a game to spare following crushing bonus-point victories over Romania and Tonga.

Farrell’s men have won 27 of their last 29 Test matches, including beating the Springboks 19-16 in Dublin last autumn.

Yet one of the two defeats during the remarkable run of form came in Paris – a 30-24 loss to France in last year’s Six Nations.

“Our journey’s had all sorts and it prepares you for games like this,” continued Farrell. “I suppose we’ll learn a bit more after this one as well.

“There will be over 30,000 Irish supporters there in a stadium we know well and we want to get back there and get back to winning ways there.

“It’s a challenge that we’re ready for, looking forward to, and it’s coming soon.”

Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park replaces Conor Murray in the only change to Ireland’s starting XV, while first-choice hooker Dan Sheehan is in line for his World Cup debut after being named on the bench following a foot injury.

Captain Johnny Sexton wants to reward the travelling fans with another statement win after thousands of green jerseys flooded Bordeaux and Nantes on the previous two weekends.

“I don’t think I’ve played a game here where we’ll have the majority of the support,” said the 38-year-old, who will partner the returning Gibson-Park.

“The support we get for World Cups in particular, it’s incredible.

“Last week in the stadium there was just green everywhere, the week before the same, and I’m sure it will be the same again.

“So it’s hats off to the people that put their hand in their pocket and come over.

“It means a lot to us and we hope we give them something to cheer about.

“We’re going to have to be in top form to get a result.”

Caelan Doris admits to initially being shocked by the sheer size of the South Africa team but insists facing the fearsome might of the so-called ‘Bomb Squad’ will not significantly alter Ireland’s game plan.

Back-rower Doris will take on the Springboks for only the second time in his career in Saturday evening’s crunch Rugby World Cup showdown in Paris.

The 25-year-old helped Ireland register a 19-16 win over the reigning world champions in November following a bruising Dublin encounter in which he was taken aback by the hefty bulk of the opposition.

The Springboks will again look to impose brute strength on Andy Farrell’s men after naming a six-two split of forwards and backs on their bench for this weekend’s pivotal Pool B clash at Stade de France.

Asked what distinguishes South Africa from other sides, Doris replied: “Physicality is the word that comes to mind.

“I remember being shocked at just the sheer size of them, playing them in November.

“They kind of do a six-two or even seven-one sometimes off the bench and have massive reinforcements coming off the bench as well.

“But it’s definitely not the only string to their bow. They’ve got a lot of pace in their backs and their forwards are capable of keeping the ball alive and offloading.

“Obviously the physicality is tied into their set-piece, they’ve got a great maul, great lineout options as well, a very strong lineout and scrum as well, so getting those areas right is going to be big.”

Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who was then head coach, adopted the stacked bench tactic during his side’s run to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019.

Doris insists Ireland will not be deviating from the approach which has brought 15 successive Test wins.

“It doesn’t actually change too much,” he said.

“We talk about delivering an 80-minute performance regardless of who we are playing and knowing that some teams target the last 20 minutes.

“We also speak of our bench coming on and not just fitting in but actually taking it up a level. That will be important for us this weekend.”

Ireland, who have topped the Test rankings for more than a year, can seal progression to the World Cup quarter-finals with success in the French capital.

Doris feels better equipped to deal with the pressures of performing in front of a capacity Stade de France crowd than during last year’s Six Nations when Farrell’s men suffered a 30-24 loss to France.

“There’s so much belief amongst this group and there’s belief that we can still get a lot better,” he said.

“Delivering that in such a big game in Paris in front of 80,000 people – hopefully there will be a lot of Irish there – is just about constantly getting better as a group and believing that we can improve quite a bit.

“We are always striving for the perfect performance.”

Referring to the 2022 defeat to Les Bleus, he continued: “From the warm-up there was a palpable intensity in the atmosphere from the French in particular, drums banging and stuff like that.

“Having experienced it once, it is an easier thing to visualise and be aware of. It will be a little bit less of a shock for me.”

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