Ireland's maiden achievement secured in style
Ireland's Alison Miller and Sophie Spence celebrate at the final whistle after beating Scotland to claim the Triple Crown. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Scotland 3 Ireland 30:A Triple Crown and qualification for next year’s World Cup Paris secured, this victory represents so much more than that. It is the breakout track for women’s rugby in Ireland. The proof was among the four figure attendance at Lasswade rugby club in Bonnyrigg on a bitterly cold Saturday. The IRFU committee men showed up.
That’s a small but significant step. Now to get Fiona Coghlan’s women into the spotlight on a regular basis. It could start by making them an occasional fixture on the undercard of the men’s internationals. Like England do.
Lord knows, they have earned the right for increased exposure. This was almost a false dawn. For the extremely uncomfortable opening quarter Scotland had them under severe pressure. They put themselves under it too. That’s what a Triple Crown match does to the psyche. And the weight of expectation having so impressively blitzed England a fortnight ago.
It was nervy, the ball wasn’t sticking to normally reliable hands and Scotland’s confidence was rising with each unforced error. The mood of each team was in stark contrast, Ireland rigid and focused during Ireland’s Call while the Scottish ladies were visibly relaxed; many of them burst out laughing when hooker Sarah Quick roared “against them!” on the quiet moments of Flower of Scotland.
Welsh referee Simon Rees was proving a bloody nuisance as well, harshly penalising Ireland at three successive scrums for spinning 90 degrees. He had a poor game in general, missing Scotland’s inability to throw the required five metres at the lineout and so obviously inconsistent when punishing Ireland’s excellent counter-rucking.
It was the breakdown, and so many other facets of play, that Ireland’s devilish flankers Claire Molloy and Siobhan Fleming excelled. “Our backrow won us this game,” said head coach Philip “Goose” Doyle afterwards.
But there were several early problems. Lisa Ritchie got the hosts off to a perfect start with a penalty on seven minutes. Fear and tension permeated around the Irish section of the tiny main stand, with many of the inhabitants parents, relatives or close friends of the players.
I had the good fortune of sitting beside Mick Coghlan, a model of calmness in a sea of concern. The captain’s father has been following women’s rugby for over a decade after a lifetime of interest in the sport itself. He’s been to almost every match Fiona has played in a green jersey.
But like the rest of us, Mick became a helpless onlooker, as had Doyle and his impressive backroom team, in that opening 20 minutes. Victory had to be earned on the field and it desperately required leaders to rise up. They needed a score, which dashing fullback Niamh Briggs eventually supplied on 22 minutes to level matters.
Then, for a time, the girls found their mojo. Lynne Cantwell, the women’s version of Brian O’Driscoll, sparked to life in midfield with Jenny Murphy inside her, think Jamie Roberts, beginning to make inroads.
Fleming and Molloy were everywhere that Scottish ball could be disrupted and both carried like lunatics. Coghlan and Joy Neville also got in the thick of it while wingers, Ashleigh Baxter and Alison Miller, started working off the promptings of halfback pair Nora Stapleton and Larissa Muldoon.
Eventually, Coghlan yelled, “enough!” powering into the Scottish 22 after some penetrative running by Briggs. After two clever offloads by Cantwell, Miller scurried over in the left corner. That made it 8-3 and everyone began to relax. Perhaps too much. Scotland should have been filleted at this juncture but three knock-ons and four forwards passes disrupted Ireland’s rhythm.
Scotland poured forward but herculean defending by Coghlan, Cantwell and Molloy kept the line intact. Everyone stepped up, the power of Sophie Spence and Mags Reilly in the engine room, while Gillian Bourke and Ailis Egan put their bodies on the line until exhaustion intervened.
My notepad is littered with references of Molloy acts of defiance. But Coghlan was equally immense; mopping up the dirty ball, making the unforgiving tackle that leaves your body crippled by torturous pain for days after. “She didn’t lick it off the stones!” quipped a beaming Mick, after his daughter rose from beneath a pile of bodies for the umpteenth time.
But 8-3 was never going to be enough. It left Ireland exposed to the whims of Rees or a counterattack orchestrated by Scotland’s slick outhalf Tanya Griffith. Then a justified sin-binning changed the flow of this contest. Griffith had to walk for blatantly spoiling an Irish overlap. The resulting Briggs penalty made it 11-3 with 58 minutes played. Daylight, finally.
The numerical advantage immediately told as Miller profited from a brilliant line break by Briggs to race under the posts. When Griffith returned it was 18-3. “I knew Scotland weren’t going to sit down at home,” said Doyle. “They are a hard bunch – Scotland and Ireland women’s matches are always tight affairs. The consistency of performance? I knew we would have it but it has been years in building.”
The shackles now broken, Ireland rolled out their established systems with Stapleton directing matters. It was a great advert for the hunger within this squad as despite emptying the bench they racked up another two tries from Fleming and the brilliant Briggs.
“I’m just delighted with the way girls performed in the last 25 minutes,” Doyle continued. “There was a lot of pressure on us after the England victory, winning your first Triple Crown was never going to be handed to us. It was always going to take something special. We had to dig ourselves out of this game.”
Coghlan concurred: “We just didn’t have enough patience. We were trying to score too quickly instead of building the phases, forcing offloads. But we put our game plan into practice in the second-half. To win 30-3 and not be happy is alright because we do have stuff to work on before France.”
As the scoreboard ticked over, Mick turned and said through chattering teeth, “I never thought I’d see the day: a women’s Triple Crown, can you believe it?” He wouldn’t entertain talk of a Grand Slam.
“But Paddy’s weekend in Milan is booked. Friday to Monday. We’ve gone to all Fi’s games. And we’ll be in Paris next year.” There will be a few more than just friends and family joining them at the 2014 World Cup.