Control the key mantra as Ireland emerge from huge upheaval to stand on cusp of glory

Tom Tierney’s side have found a rhythm since that dark night against the French

Tom Tierney talking to the Irish backs during the captain’s run recently. The Grand Slam may have slipped out of reach but a second Six Nations in three years is within touching distance. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Tom Tierney talking to the Irish backs during the captain’s run recently. The Grand Slam may have slipped out of reach but a second Six Nations in three years is within touching distance. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

 

Let’s briefly revisit the French visit to Ashbourne in February. Not to highlight the floodlight failure again but to reveal its positive impact.

Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, the Grand Slam slipped out of reach that night. Still, the Six Nations trophy, for the second time in three years, should be in Niamh Briggs’ grasp tomorrow afternoon.

But Friday the 13th up at Milltown House was a strange old affair. Just before darkness descended, France were so dominant that a heavy defeat seemed inevitable. They had plenty of excuses too. All the changes. The new faces. The lack of preparation.

A transitional period if you will.

Only for the resilience of the usuals – Ailis Egan, Claire Molloy and Mas Reilly’s lineout theft – was it scoreless at half-time. Then, not a minute into the second half, amateur hour descended.

“The lights going out changed the whole course of the game,” said Tom Tierney, now firmly embedded as head coach.

In that it worked to your advantage? “It did. A lot of people were saying wasn’t it desperate that the lights went out but it was the best thing that could have happened to us because it killed the French momentum.”

When the dodgy filter was mended Ireland were a side transformed. “It became a separate game,” Tierney continued. “We executed very well in the second half.”

France did cut loose with an intercept try but Ireland, at the very least, should have salvaged a draw after pounding away at the visitor’s line, while trailing 10-5, until a handling error brought the curtain down.

“The lessons we all learnt from that was to really have a go, not just contain the English. If we are going to be as good as we can be we need to go after teams. By and large we controlled the game against England.”

That’s the core facet of Tierney’s coaching philosophy. Control. “Against England we showed character to defend our line, work our way up the pitch and manufacture a penalty.” Briggs kicked it. Heather O’Brien, the new pack leader, also made an impression that night. Larissa Muldoon and Sophie Spence have been a revelation all season.

“Winning against England was enormous. But we had to back it up with a professional performance away from home against Wales. Nothing fancy. That’s the most pleasing thing for me; how we dealt with the before, during and after the Welsh game. They are in control of games now.”

And again. His mantra.“Myself and Deccie (O’Brien) were never going to come in and change anything. There was too short a time frame. Secondly, there wasn’t much to change, just a couple of things we wanted our teams to do.”

Tierney teams, and there’s enough of them, strive for the same characteristics. “Ball retention, to be in control of phases of play for one, two, three minutes and putting teams under pressure as often as possible by holding onto the ball and controlling the game that way.

“That means using the full width of the field but going where the space is. We are above 50-55 percent possession in every game. That is something they haven’t been in the past.”

If France lose in Twickenham tonight Ireland need only to beat the winless Scots. If France win, Ireland must beat Scotland by 20 points plus the winning French margin. All of this is doable. Scotland have been desperately poor, leaking 25 tries in the previous four matches and registering just two of their own. It should be a procession.

Considering where women’s rugby has come from in such a short space of time, along with the uprooting of core leaders and the entire coaching ticket after the World Cup, to be on the cusp of another title is astonishing.

Granted, other factors are at work. The English and French sides that beat Ireland at the World Cup last August have been decimated by a focus on Sevens and the looming Olympic games.

Ireland initially fell between two stools by coming late to Sevens and unrealistically expecting their best 15 aside players to essentially switch sports and therefore not build on the 2013 Grand Slam. Rio 2016 has come too soon but Anthony Eddy is building a high performance Sevens programme out in DCU that should make Ireland competitive in time.

The benefit to the 15 aside game is obvious. “Traditionally they would be two separate entities but now they are together it will feed everyone,” said Tierney.

The evidence is already there. Hannah Tyrrell, a former Dublin goalkeeper who switched to Sevens, wins her fourth cap on the right wing tomorrow.

Ordinary people take on three jobs out of necessity. Mouths to feed and what not. Tierney is doing it because there were enough hours in the day. A perfect storm of scheduling these past three months allowed him coach Glenstal Abbey to the Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final, Cork Constitution and the Ireland women.

Capped the eight times by Ireland in 1999-2000, he parts ways with Con when the All-Ireland league concludes. He already left Glenstal in better shape than he found them. “We should’ve won that semi-final actually. Rockwell won handily in the final. We had them at 6-3 (trailing) at half-time. Then we lost our outhalf Jack Stafford and . . . it was set for us.”

Really? “Yeah, it was. We ran them. They were too big, way bigger than us, so we ran them back and forth and over and back. If we kept playing like that, yah, but when Jack went off we reverted back to going straight at them. After a while the size caught us in the end. Don’t get me wrong, they are a good team, very well coached and just too big in the end.”

His one season stint with Cork Con enters a crucial phase next weekend. Currently lying in the fourth play-off spot, a point clear of Ballynahinch and UCD, with Young Munster and Old Belvedere also in the hunt, they journey to Castle avenue.

“We’ve got ‘Tarf away and UCD at home. And the Bateman Cup (semi-final) this weekend, against Buccaneers away. Me coming in, as an outsider, the first ever into Con was daunting, for them as much as me, but thankfully things have gone well. We won a Munster senior cup, which was brilliant for me personally and for the club.”

What’s the difference between coaching grown men, international women and teenage boys? “I tell you what, when you have the right group of guys or girls or teenagers it doesn’t really matter because you just look on them as players. You have the same personalities, the same messing or joking. It’s actually fascinating.

“I came into all three jobs saying, right, I’m going to be myself because I can’t do it any other way. It’s great to know you can just deal with them as players.”

That attitude is clearly working.

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