One step closer to Grand Slam glory for Irish women as France are taken down
Ireland's fullback Niamh Briggs goes over the French line to score a try during last night's Women's Six Nations Championship clash at Ashbourne RFC. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland 15 France 10: Just a little piece of history was made last night. One more step to go. A victory in Milan against an Italian side, who will not be accommodating hosts, and Ireland have their first ever Grand Slam.
“Playing for a Grand Slam – can you believe it?” said Ireland coach Philip Doyle. “I’m a little buzzed, to say the least!”
The end was so different from the beginning. Ireland camped in the French 22 and refused to leave. It was the perilous nature of the scoreline, just 12-10, especially against the French, which made for such a gripping spectacle.
Ireland killed off their opponents in the same way Munster won their second European Cup in 2008, picking and jamming the life out of a France pack that had earlier threatened to destroy them.
A penalty was given by the generous Kiwi referee Nicky Inwood six minutes into injury- time, and captain Fiona Coghlan immediately pointed to the uprights, knowing that regardless of how Niamh Briggs’ strike turned out there would be no time for the restart.
She got it and by the very end they had done so much more than just survived.
On a misty night, with constant hazy rain blanketing proceedings, it was quickly apparent Ireland would struggle for territory.
Such was the ferocity and size of France, it was going to take something very special to keep this very new Grand Slam dream alive.
Step forward Lynne Cantwell. The Exiles centre loves coming home to represent her country, and is no stranger to this standard of competition either.
The French knew her well and so she was used primarily as a decoy in Ireland’s early probes. Cerebral outhalf Nora Stapleton would wrap around Cantwell, in an attempt to unlock Ireland’s pacy back three.
But it wasn’t working, with the French muscle not long translating into points. Huge number eight Safi N’Diaye, while frightening to behold, was actually manageable as she lacked pace and dynamism, but the blindside, Diallo Cumba, was everywhere.
Their outhalf Sandrine Agricole landed a huge penalty from wide left after just five minutes.
Then came Cantwell’s cameo, darting through midfield before offloading to number eight Joy Neville, who was equally quick in sending Briggs away.
A try from nothing.
The lead lasted a few minutes before Agricole converted Gaelle Mignot’s try from the touchline.
Everything Ireland tried was faltering behind the gainline and playing into a first-half wind was making it seem like an even steeper incline.
Still, for the most part, Cantwell, Stapleton and Briggs kept probing away, be it running at soft shoulders or kicking over the blue wave.
“I knew they were going to come out heavy at us,” Doyle said. “I told the girls ‘let the pressure go over your shoulders, stay nice and low in the contact areas and all that pressure will go right over your backs’.
“I knew if we held them for the first 20, 25 minutes and didn’t let them away with it we could come away with a victory.”
It seemed like the only hope was for the bigger French pack to tire.
Little things were killing Ireland, like not finding touch. It meant they were clinging on before half-time, with Briggs making a heroic last-ditch tackle on French right wing Julie Billes.
“Amazing,” said Doyle of the hit. “We attacked them low. That was the game plan.”
The visitors weren’t afraid to throw a few digs either, certainly if they felt a green jersey was encroaching on their possession.
Ireland desperately needed their dressingroom to regroup and somehow find a way of turning what seemed an inevitability defeat, and all this hype about women’s rugby in this country could be put neatly back in its little box.
Not only were they fighting a superior sporting nation last night, Coghlan’s team, unbeknownst to themselves, were facing down many, many stereotypes.
This, regardless of the result, they have done. Respect now earned.
Then something remarkable happened. Before the second half could settle, Coghlans pack bucked the trend of the opening 40 minutes and mauled the French over their own line, tighthead prop Ailis Egan arising from a clump of bodies.
Briggs nailed the conversion and, out of nowhere, Ireland were 12-10 ahead.
Just 34 minutes to hold out.
At least the elements were with them. That horrible drizzle was now in French faces.
Also, Ireland had discovered a solid source of possession in their lineout, with Sophie Spence and Marie Louise Reilly expertly launched into the night sky.
The contest descended into a litany of scrums and error, more error and scrums. Aurelie Bailon, the French darling, arrived and miscued a drop at goal. But the tight calls went Ireland’s way.
“There was no nerves beforehand,” said Doyle. “They are so confidant in themselves, they believe in the way we play rugby and that’s why they were so calm. In the team meeting beforehand they were all laughing, just so calm.”
Just so special.