Ireland 15 Scotland 14
A win over Scotland in what amounted to a glorified wooden spoon shoot-out mightn’t have seemed like a modicum of revenge for the devastating World Cup qualifying defeat in the final play in Parma last September, but it sure did in the end.
This was largely because Ireland were staring down the barrel of a first wooden spoon since 2004 after losing their way in the second half. But in a near identical role reversal from Parma this time it was the home side who sealed the deal in a grandstand finish.
Enya Breen was the hero, converting her own 84th-minute try, so sending a sodden but good-sized and wildly enthusiastic crowd at the Kingspan Stadium into raptures.
Breen turned ran toward her team-mates on halfway and was engulfed half way there, with the rest of the squad and backroom staff on the touchline invading the pitch to join in. A second win thus sealed a fourth-place finish in the 2022 TikTok Six Nations while condemning Scotland to a ninth wooden spoon.
The conditions were never going to make for a great spectacle, making Ireland’s surfeit of handling errors somewhat excusable. They appeared to have recovered from an early Scottish try to seemingly grasp control of the game, but Scotland’s superior kicking game and game management, allied to the concession of nine second-half penalties, appeared to have secured a winning advantage.
However, there’s never been much doubting this squad’s spirit and never-say-die togetherness, and although they appeared to have blown it they dug deeper than at any point in this tournament.
For that, despite the faults in the performance, they deserved this win. Certainly the outstanding hometown girl Neve Jones did, scoring a try and tackling her socks off, winning penalties and inspiring the late flourish with a charge down.
The scrum, hitherto an Achilles heel was transformed, with Linda Djougang having a huge match, as did Hannah O'Connor, while Vicky Irwin had a fine debut after a shaky start and ultimately there was no denying the collective work rate in continuing to make clearout after tiring clearout.
They also responded wonderfully to a bad start. Scotland kicked off with the breeze and pinned Ireland deep in their own half, a clever and wicked grubber by Helen Nelson and a good chase by Rhona Lloyd prevented Irwin from clearing her lines. What's more, centre Lisa Thomson earned a penalty into the corner.
Scotland went to the corner, their maul taking them to within inches of the Irish line and a sequence of close-in drives culminated in Evie Gallagher burrowing over with a little help from Sarah Bonar.
Still there was encouragement in a clean break off a scrum by centre Breen even if Nikki Caughey, recalled for her first Six Nations game in four years, slightly over-ran the offload.
There was encouragement too in a strong first scrum on a Scottish put-in, and when Caity Mattinson compounded a knock-on when pinged for offside up stepped number eight Hannah O’Connor to thump the 40-metre penalty.
Scotland had the better kicking game but whereas Irwin made a good take from Mattinson's box kick, Chloe Rollie fumbled a poor kick by Caughey as the rain worsened.
Handling errors and a failure to make clearouts prevented Ireland from maximising their territorial foothold. Djougang appeared to have the measure of the Scottish tighthead Christine Belisle but O'Connor pulled an easier scrum penalty from 35 metres wide.
Caughey kicked out on the full and was pinged for a high tackle but Ireland responded with a big defensive set featuring several tackled by Jones and some big hits by Sam Monaghan, Edel McMahon and Djougang, and after a Caughey knock-on the Irish packed shunted Scotland over their own put-in.
Djougang forced another turnover when lining up Scottish flanker and driving Rachel McLachlan backwards with a perfectly executed tackle and Caughey again profited from a nothing kick to Rollie when the Scottish full-back ran into team-mate Shona Campbell.
Ireland kicked the ensuing penalty to the corner, Jones's throw hit Nichola Fryday and a sustained drive inched patiently toward the Scottish line, Djougang switching positions to protect the ball and escort the Irish hooker over the line. Breen assumed the kicking duties but grazed the outside of the upright when missing the kickable conversion.
So although they deserved their hard-earned 8-5 interval lead, in what was always likely to be a low-scoring contest it could, and really should, have been 13-5.
In keeping with the first half, as the rain swept down again another unexceptional kick by Caughey straight to Rollie was compounded by Sarah Law finding touch deep inside the Irish 22. Eventually, as the penalties mounted, this led to Nelson drawing the sides level when O'Connor was offside.
Another Nelson penalty followed when Caughey was pinged for not rolling way after tackling Rollie, and when Sene Naoupu played the ball from an offside position after tackling the dangerous Scottish fullback to concede Ireland’s seventh penalty of the half, Nelson made it 14-8.
Ireland were brought to life with a counterattack by Irwin, Breen and O’Connor, earning a penalty against Mattinson for offside and opting for a penalty inside the 22, and went through multiple phases but Bonar couldn’t be dislodged in a brilliant jackal.
A chargedown by Jones and O’Connor’s counter-rucking earned two more attacking scrums but, needing a seven-pointer, Ireland opted to go wide, so letting the touchline become Scotland’s extra defender as Rhona Lloyd tackled Molly Scuffil-McCabe into touch.
It seemed their chance had gone but one more scrum penalty earned an attacking lineout. After the catch-and-drive was eventually held up, Ireland rolled up their sleeves and opted for one-off runners and pick-and-jams, deep into overtime.
Monaghan, Breen and Maeve Og O’Leary gave the attack some momentum before Djougang pivoted and passed the ball on to Breen, who slipped the tackle of Rollie and powered through two more for a sensational try.
She had to gather her breath, bring down her heartbeat and from almost an identical position to Scotland’s match-winning conversion in Parma, bisected the posts.
Cue the wild celebrations.
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).