Breen ensures determined Ireland finish on a high

Late try snatches win over Scotland and provides a significant boost for McWilliams’ squad

Ireland 15 Scotland 14

It may not have been a World Cup qualifier. It may only have been the difference between fourth and sixth in the 2022 TikTok Six Nations. But even in something of a championship free hit a first wooden spoon since 2004 would have kept Irish women's rugby at a low ebb.

Instead, Enya Breen’s 84th-minute try and 85th-minute conversion completed an exact role reversal with Scotland from that fateful World Cup qualifier in Parma last September. Where there were tears of anguish that day here they were of unbridled joy.

So having used 37 players in this championship they head on to a proposed tour to Japan this summer and a need to fill the void left by not competing in the World Cup before a pivotal 2023 Six Nations with some wind in their sails, knowing they can dig out wins like this and that bit more convinced they are on the right track.

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For all the flaws in the performance, as Greg McWilliams noted afterwards, to win like this was perhaps more beneficial than a more complete 40-10 victory, all the more so as it rewarded another large if sodden but totally engaged crowd.

“The fact that now they can do that, now they can grow on that. People come into the squad know they’re coming into a squad that has that bite and that bottle, and that’s expected of them. I think it’s really important for momentum.”

After responding so well to an early Scottish try, Ireland lost their way in the second half, the concession of nine penalties contributing to a 13-9 penalty count and the visitors’ superior kicking game and game management appeared to have steered them to a winning position.

But no matter who wears the jersey there's never been any doubt about the pride they invest in it. The debutant fullback Vicky Irwin availed of, for once, a poor Scottish kick and almost non-existent chase to link with Breen, who had moved to outhalf, in a counter with the outstanding Hannah O'Connor.

The inspired hometown girl and player of the match Neve Jones dragged them to the Scottish line with charge down and chase, kept them there in tandem with O’Connor with a big defensive play.

Come the final throw of the dice off a penalty to the corner and lineout maul, they hammered away through ten phases before Linda Djougang, who also had a huge game, perhaps slightly overran the pass from Alisa Hughes. The prop thus moved it on to Breen who slipped out of the tackle by Chloe Rollie, scorer of that late try in Parma, and powered through three more to score. She then took a deep breath and landed the conversion.

"She has nerves of steel that girl but she didn't doubt herself for a second," said captain Nichola Fryday. "She said: 'Yeah, that's fine. I'll take that'. And that's what you want. You want those players standing up in those moments.

Proud performance

“We were back on the halfway and I said: ‘Girls, whatever happens, this is a really proud performance for us.’ And then Enya just slotted it over and that was the icing on the cake.”

For sure, the final table tells no lies, with England ahead of France and then clear daylight to the peleton. Nor are England, with superior under-age and club structures, and playing numbers, standing still.

Yet, next year’s Six Nations will not be the first cousin of a free hit as the race to finish third will secure a place in the top tier of World Rugby’s proposed WXV, and with no promotion and relegation in the ‘first cycle’. In other words dining at the top table or on the outside looking in.

“Next year our goal has to be to get in the top three,” McWilliams readily admitted, “so we can get into the WXV which brings more money, more TV, more eyes on the game, more development opportunities. While England is far and away the best team, in my opinion, in the world and you’ve France pretty close by, we need to make sure first and foremost, like it’s baby steps, we need to be definitely the third best team. 100%. It’s like, bring it on.

“If we go out against England again next week and we lose 68-0, if we play them the following week and we lose by over 70 and the following we lose by 50 and we keep learning and developing, that’s great because eventually you get comfortable in that environment and then you play other teams. That’s when you can actually start now getting confident and working on your game, developing your game.”

In the meantime McWilliams will meet with David Nucifora tomorrow and look to fine-tune the plan which has already been devised. It's anticipated that more full-time contracts will be made available as part of McWilliams' desire for the players to bridge the gap in conditioning and fitness.

But as Fryday pointed out, professional contracts are not necessarily the simple fix.

“For each Union I think contracts are very different because what works for England wouldn’t necessarily work for us. I think it’s about us as players working with the IRFU to find a model that really works for us and that we get the most out of and they get the most out of, because for some girls it’s not going to be sustainable for them. They have established careers.”

“So I think it’s about having an honest conversation with the IRFU about what’s going to work for us and what will allow us to be able to push on and really develop as a team.”

SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: Gallagher try 0-5; 16: O'Connor pen 3-5; 39: Jones try 8-5; (half-time 8-5); 53: Nelson pen 8-8; 60: Nelson pen 8-11, 63: Nelson pen 8-14; 80+4: Breen try and con 15-14.

IRELAND: Vicky Irwin; Aoife Doyle, Sene Naoupu, Enya Breen, Molly Scuffil-McCabe; Nikki Caughey, Kathryn Dane; Linda Djougang, Neve Jones, Christy Haney; Nichola Fryday (capt), Sam Monaghan; Dorothy Wall, Edel McMahon, Hannah O'Connor.

Replacements: Katie O'Dwyer for Haney, Michelle Claffey for Caughey (both 61 mins), Grace Moore for Wall, Maeve Og O'Leary for McMahon (both 66), Alisa Hughes for Dane (76). Not used: Emma Hooban, Chloe Pearse, Aoife McDermott.

SCOTLAND: Chloe Rollie; Rhona Lloyd, Lisa Thomson, Helen Nelson, Shona Campbell; Sarah Law, Caity Mattinson; Molly Wright, Lana Skeldon, Christine Belisle; Emma Wassell, Sarah Bonar; Rachel Malcom (capt), Rachel McLachlan, Evie Gallagher.

Replacements: Emma Orr for Law, Megan Gaffney for Campbell (both 58 mins), Louise McMillan for McLachlan (63), Leah Bartlett for Wright (66). Not used: Jodie Rettie, Leah Bartlett, Katie Dougan, Eva Donaldson.

Referee: Maggie Cogger-Orr (New Zealand).