England blow out Ireland’s flickering hopes to claim Grand Slam

Ireland had their opportunities at a packed Donnybrook before late scoring spree

Ireland 7 England 34

The Grand Slam flickered into view until England woke from their slumber to remind everyone why they were crowned world champions in 2014.

So many positives on an awful St Patrick’s night in Donnybrook. Number one on the list is what appears to be the growing hardcore following among a 6,105 crowd.

Ireland’s all-powerful scrum warmed the local, largely accessible supporter base ahead of the World Cup in Dublin and Belfast this August.


Jenny Murphy showed up, running straight through midfield and ending a few promising English attacks with the sternest of tackles. Sene Naoupu nimbly danced through a massive work load. Ali Miller brought that championship steel – Laois county championship, mind – as soon as Michael D Higgins walked off the field. She ploughed up yardage that didn't exist, nudging her opposite winger at every opportunity.

Lindsay Peat remains a penalty liability, having yet to fully grasp the offside and breakdown laws since switching from Gaelic football and basketball, but she relished this rare chance to bash into Red Roses.

Even Maz Reilly, ultra-focused on her 50th cap, left powerful flanker Marlie Packer stitched over on the ground after heavy, and fairly late contact.

But Ireland do have a fundamental problem that needs solving before the World Cup. Nora Stapleton is the established number 10. She cleverly brings others into play, especially the blindside winger, and seems to be the chief defensive organiser. But two kicks out on the full in the opening eight minutes had Ireland in all sorts of bother.

Emily Scarratt missed an early penalty – Peat offside at the ruck – and couldn't land the conversion of Amy Wilson Hardy's 16th-minute try.

But the damage was done by the Lichfield centre's skip pass for right wing Wilson Hardy. That put England into a lead they refused to relinquish.

More English scores were promised but the crowd was hugely encouraged by a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. A territorial swing came off Reilly’s lineout steal and Stapleton’s eye for a gap in the English defence.

Finally, Ireland went through the phases without an unforced error.

The result was a penalty in sight of the English line. Stapleton aimed for touch but kicked it dead. Ireland upped the pressure on the English scrum but, really, a rare opportunity had passed.

The boot of Niamh Briggs – who missed the entire campaign with her latest hamstring issue – can alleviate the pressure on Stapleton's kicking.

Ireland, as they have done all championship, came again. It's hard to find a more stubborn bunch. Stapleton's lateral carry and reverse pass had Naoupu steaming towards the English posts but Packer and Sarah Hunter held her up. Sophie Spence dived over the line but a mass of bodies denied a definitive decision.

Scrum Ireland. Paula Fitzpatrick said to hell with it and picked from the base. Denied again, and England upped their muscular resistance to eventually rip possession back to clear their lines.

The reception for Ireland as they returned to the field after the break was an indication of the special relationship that’s building.

This is an easy team to support. It’s their bravery evident in every tackle, every punishing carry.

When they join the dots they are formidable. England know this now.

They changed both props and switched around their threequarters after half-time with Rachael Burford replacing outhalf Emily Scott.

Tom Tierney – not adverse to chopping and changing his line-up mid tournament after the director of women's rugby Anthony Eddy decreed that Miller, Naoupu and Hannah Tyrrell would be better serving the IRFU on the World Sevens circuit in Las Vegas rather than facing France (all part of the masterplan) – stuck with the frontliners as the Grand Slam crept into view.

A Murphy outside break was halted but a penalty followed. The lineout maul threatened but was stopped. A handling error allowed England escape once more.

England had suffered enough. On 53 minutes Hunter and Packer were denied tries by the heroics of Leah Lyons and then Miller but sub prop Laura Keates was not going to be denied.

Somehow, well, because of Sevens, they had not won the Six Nations since 2012. They did squeeze in some World Cup success in 2014 but since then they had become the sleeping giants of the women's 15 aside game.

The English woke up on Friday night. And they had to as Ireland produced their best performance since winning the championship in 2015.

The result, the title and the Grand Slam slipped out of Ireland’s grasp when Scarratt broke through midfield only to see her try-scoring pass slapped down by Mairead Coyne. The replacement fullback had to go. Alhambra Nieves duly pulled out the yellow card as Scarratt’s penalty made it 13-0.

Then, as only England can, they cut loose with hooker Amy Cokayne racing all of 30 metres for the third try. When the offloading began, Scarratt began to tear Ireland apart. Different class.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 15 mins: A Wilson Hardy try, 5-0. Half-time. 53 mins: L Keates try, 10-0; 58 mins: E Scarratt pen, 13-0; 61 mins: A Cokayne try, 18-0; E Scarratt con, 20-0; 65 mins: L Leah try, 20-5; H Tyrrell con, 20-7; 68 mins: E Scarratt 25-7, E Scarratt con, 27-7; 73 mins: L Thompson try, 32-7, E Scarratt con, 34-7.

IRELAND: K Flood; H Tyrrell, J Murphy, S Naoupu, A Miller; N Stapleton, L Muldoon; L Peat, L Lyons, A Egan; S Spence, ML Reilly; C Griffin, C Molloy, P Fitzpatrick (capt).

Replacements: M Healy for L Muldoon (43 mins, HIA), C Cooney for C Molloy (51 mins), M Coyne for K Flood (52 mins), N Caughey for N Stapleton, I van Staden for L Peat, R O'Reilly for A Egan (all 63 mins), C O'Connor for L Lyons, N Fryday for C Griffin (both 69 mins).

ENGLAND: D Waterman; A Wilson Hardy, E Scarratt, A Reed, K Wilson; E Scott, LT Mason; R Clark, A Cokayne, J Lucas; T Taylor, H Millar-Mills; A Matthews, M Packer, S Hunter (capt).

Replacements: V Cornborough for R Clark, R Burford for E Scott, L Keates for J Lucas (all half-time), E Scott for R Burford (51-52 mins), P Cleall for A Matthews (51-55 mins, HIA), B Blackburn for LT Mason, V Fleetwood for A Cokayne (both 67 mins), L Thompson for K Wilson (69 mins), I Noel-Smith for M Packer (76 mins).

Referee: Alhambra Nieves (France).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent