England’s defensive grit pays dividends

Ireland hit a brick wall that left any hope of repeating last season’s Triple Crown in ruins.

England 17 Ireland 10: There are moments in a game that resonate. The sight of Niamh Briggs and Jenny Murphy leaving the Twickenham field one after the other 11 minutes into the second half was a double blow few teams in any sport could survive.

But survive they did.

Still, any chance of victory seemed to dissolve with their departure and that of Sophie Spence, Ireland's most physically imposing player, moments later.

Briggs's collarbone injury, her latest in a cursed run of luck, could severely damage Ireland's aspirations of retaining their Six Nations title. It's that right boot of hers; the distance she gets to relieve pressure and her assured place-kicking.

There are few like her and no ready replacement in Philip Doyle’s squad. The Limerick-based garda’s departure was felt the most on the hour mark.

England were battering at the gates but Marie-Louise Reilly soared to take a lineout near the Irish try line. They desperately needed to find touch up at half way.

Instead they found England's brilliant fullback Emily Scarratt. It eventually led to the England mauling Marlie Packer over for their third and killer try.

Jenny Murphy had also mangled up her shoulder, having shipped a shuddering tackle from England's earlier try scorer Sarah Hunter. The Old Belvedere centre dusted herself off and managed to leave an almighty mark on the marauding Scarratt before leaving the battlefield.

With that all hope seemed to fade. Nobody told that to Lynne Cantwell, Claire Molloy or the others who, especially considering the size disadvantage, continued their defensive work.

It was high-intensity sport.

“I think that was a fairly full-on game!” Doyle agreed. “There were some bone crunchers going in there. I think that’s a fantastic advertisement for the women’s game.”

Shame the standard of officiating was so far below the required standard.

A close final score then, but in reality Ireland hit a brick wall – well, two actually, one real and one imaginary – that left any hope of repeating last season’s Triple Crown in ruins.

The visible brick wall was a stern white one that England built across the entrance to their territory for most of the second-half. The unseen barrier was the awfully finicky refereeing of Canada's Sherry Trumbull.

Not that England deserved to lose this attritional contest, it’s just that Ireland’s plan rested so heavily on being allowed to snaffle ball at the breakdown.

Trumbull simply wouldn't allow it, cruelly yellow carding Lynne Cantwell on 71 minutes, just as English lock Joanne Gilchrist returned from the sin bin and then Heather O'Brien on 78 minutes.

“I’m definitely going to have to look at this video,” a conciliatory Doyle continued. “I couldn’t understand half her decisions at the breakdown. I didn’t think we warranted two yellow cards. I think it was consistent fouling, she said, but the second one! That was for coming in from the side. To be honest, we’re not that type of team.”

Stark contrast
Something that is in stark contrast to the penalty counts England had racked up against France. That's not why Ireland lost. But it's why they couldn't prise victory from England's vice-like grip.

“We couldn’t build any momentum with decent phase ball or setpiece. We also gave to much possession to their back three. But we’ll learn a lot from this.”

There must be positives.

"We stayed in that game. Yes, we badly missed Niamh's kicking and Jenny's carrying but I am absolutely delighted with my bench, the steeliness of their defending, and it was some valuable game time for so many of them looking ahead to the World Cup.

“As I told the girls, England are number two in the world and now we know we can beat them and improve significantly by August.”

Before the World Cup in France there is the small historic matter of Irish women playing at the Aviva Stadium off Lansdowne Road for the first time on Saturday week (unlike their English counterparts, the IRFU are charging in, even if the tickets are fairly cheap – €10 for adults and €5 for children).

Then there is what looks set to be a championship decider against France in Pau – where they heroically lost 8-7 two years ago despite precious little sleep.

The Grand Slam will not be repeated then, but they had the English rattled when Briggs converted Larissa Muldoon’s try, after the scrumhalf scrambled off the back of a driving maul after 30 minutes.

England fought back, with Kay Wilson’s try before half-time a cruell blow.

“We’re well in this championship. These girls will bounce back from this no problem. They are hard ladies. I think they proved that. They’ve got heart in abundance.”

And this season is only getting into its groove.

Scoring sequence
7 mins: S Hunter try, 5-0; K McLean conv, 7-0; 28: N Briggs pen, 7-3; 30: L Muldoon try, 7-8; N Briggs conv, 7-10; 39: K Wilson try, 12-10. Half-time. 59:M Packer try, 17-10.
ENGLAND: E Scarratt; K Merchant, A Reed, R Burford, K Wilson; K McLean (capt), N Hunt; R Clark, E Croker, S Hemming; R Essex, J McGilchrist; H Gallagher, M Alphonsi, S Hunter. Replacements used: M Packer for H Gallagher (47 mins), V Fleetwood for E Croker, T Taylor for R Essex (both 52 mins), LT Mason for N Hunt (57 mins), L Keates for S Hemming, S Acheson for R Clark, L Thompson for K Wilson (all 60 mins), C Large for R Burford (72 mins).
IRELAND: N Briggs; A Baxter, L Cantwell, J Murphy, A Miller; N Stapleton, L Muldoon; F Coghlan (capt), G Bourke, A Egan; S Spence, ML Reilly; S Fleming, C Molloy, H O'Brien. Replacements: J Shiels for N Briggs, G Davitt for J Murphy (both 51 mins), L Guest for S Spence (57 mins), H Casey for A Baxter (59 mins), SL Kennedy for G Bourke (60 mins), F Hayes for A Egan (74 mins), KA Craddock for F Coghlan, A Davis L Muldoon (both 75 mins).
Referee: S Trumbull (Canada).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent