Scotland 20 Ireland 18
A 'hugely disappointed' Adam Griggs said an underperforming set-piece and a lack of attacking cohesion proved to be the undoing of the Ireland women's rugby team as their World Cup dream came to an end at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma on Saturday evening.
In need of a positive result to keep their hopes of reaching next year’s finals in New Zealand alive, Ireland looked set to claim runners-up spot in the European Qualifiers – and consequently a place at a forthcoming repechage tournament – when they led 18-13 in the closing stages.
However, with outside centre Eve Higgins in the sin-bin, their Celtic counterparts pounced for a last-minute try through their impressive fullback Chloe Rollie. A draw would have been enough to keep Ireland in second place ahead of Scotland, but Sarah Law's nerveless conversion put paid to their chances.
“We’ve struggled with our set-piece this whole tournament. If you don’t have a set-piece, you can’t give the backs, as lethal as they are, that platform. Similar to the other games, we created opportunities and chances. We just couldn’t finish them. We were probably too slow into our attacking breakdowns,” Ireland’s head coach remarked.
In a similar vein to their previous encounters against Spain and Italy, scoring opportunities were at a premium during the early exchanges with both teams committing a host of errors.
Ireland were making some good ground inside the opposition 22, however, and tighthead prop Linda Djougang (one of her side's best performers in the 15-7 win over the Italians six days earlier) shrugged off a host of tackles to grab an unconverted try on 19 minutes.
The 2014 World Cup semi-finalists were hoping to push on from this point, but the sin-binning of Edel McMahon on 25 minutes afforded Scotland a foothold in the game. Helen Nelson subsequently converted a penalty to get Bryan Easson's charges up and running and while Ireland held firm with a numerical deficiency, Rhona Lloyd latched onto Nelson's chip in behind to touch down in the 39th minute.
This propelled Scotland into a 8-5 interval buffer and victory was within their sights when hooker Lana Skeldon crossed the whitewash in powerful fashion eight minutes after the restart.
Faced with an underwhelming qualification exit, Ireland turned the tables on their opponents either side of the third-quarter mark. After a Flood penalty helped them to settle, Sene Naoupu released replacement prop Lindsay Peat through a defensive gap for a 61st-minute try.
Supplementing her own bonus strike, Flood added a penalty to give Ireland some extra daylight. They briefly threatened for a third try, but found themselves under the cosh as the final whistle approached.
Despite their best efforts to close down space, the absence of Higgins left their Scottish counterparts with numbers out wide. Rollie dotted down at an angle that was favourable to Law, who made no mistake off the kicking tee.
Having taken charge of Ireland in the aftermath of the 2017 home-based World Cup, Griggs was understandably devastated to see his side’s hopes coming to an end in such a dramatic fashion.
“We’ve got 28 women there who had a huge goal and support staff who have worked tirelessly through a Covid pandemic. Through Six Nations, through dates being changed. All with a goal that essentially was really close and a last [minute] conversion takes it away. It’s hugely heartbreaking.
“Ultimately we thought we were on the right track and we thought we had done the preparation to be successful. Sometimes you don’t always get what you deserve in life and it’s one of those things we just have to take on the chin at the moment.”
The failure to reach next year’s global tournament in the southern hemisphere will likely lead to a wider conversation surrounding the current state of women’s rugby in Ireland. However, this is something that Griggs was unwilling to delve into so soon after a devastating reversal in Parma.
“I won’t comment on that at the moment. We were trying to focus on this tournament and we’ve fallen short. The bigger picture stuff is for other people to answer in time.”
Griggs’s own position as Ireland head coach will also come under scrutiny in the coming weeks and months. The New Zealander has been in charge for four Six Nations campaigns to date, but fell shy of confirming if he’d remain in charge for a fifth in 2022.
“I think it’s too soon to say. As I say, I’m just really proud of the group that’s there and some of the young players that are coming through on this pathway. I’ve worked as hard as I can to get them right. We’ll see what the future holds,” Griggs added.
SCORERS – Scotland: R Lloyd, L Skeldon, C Rollie try each, H Nelson pen, S Law con. Ireland: L Djougang, L Peat try each, S Flood 2 pens, con.
IRELAND: E Considine; A-L Murphy Crowe, E Higgins, S Naoupu, B Parsons; S Flood, K Dane; L Feely, C Moloney, L Djougang; N Fryday, S Monaghan; D Wall, E McMahon, C Griffin.
Replacements: L Delany for Considine (36 mins to h-t); L Peat for Feely (h-t); C Molloy for McMahon (50); E Lane for Dane (61); B Hogan for Monaghan (66).
SCOTLAND: C Rollie; R Lloyd, H Smith, L Thomson, M Gaffney; H Nelson, J Maxwell; L Bartlett, L Skeldon, C Belisle; E Wassell, L McMillan; R McLachlan, R Malcolm, J Konkel.
Replacements: S Law for Nelson (49 mins); S Bonar for McLachlan (55); E Gallagher for Malcolm, L Coburn for Bartlett (both 62); M Wright for Belisle (69).
Referee: C Munarini (Italy).