Ireland flirt with disaster but start World Cup with a win
Gutsy tournament hosts make life difficult for themselves but see off game Australia
Sene Naoupu and Nora Stapleton celebrate Ireland’s hard-fought opening win over Australia. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Ireland 19 Australia 17
Ireland, for as long as they have been together, tend to win the hard way.
Claire Molloy’s women made life awfully difficult for themselves on night one of this World Cup on home soil. After digging a hole, trailing 10-7 up to the hour mark, they finally started to perform like they know they can on the big occasions.
Strange mentality, but effective.
It took them 15 long minutes under the setting August sun to force a path into the Wallaroos 22. Handling errors seemed to follow every inch they crept upfield.
But this is nothing new. It’s been the profile of this squad throughout the recent Six Nations. A cohesive unit they are not but a unified gang, always.
The nervous energy coming off the 3,500 strong crowd crammed into three sides of the old Belfield amphitheatre was of little help. So they went about giving the old and new fans something to scream about.
Larissa Muldoon’s try on 19 minutes laid a platform, working off primary Irish strengths like Marie Louise Reilly’s peerless lineout and power surging scrum, that really should have seen them squeeze the life out of these callow Australians.
The visitors, Olympic gold medallists at Sevens, find the 15-a-side game almost alien. But they achieved their game plan of dragging Ireland into a high tempo contest.
This was the nightmare becoming reality that Tom Tierney probably dreamt about.
A problem for Ireland lies in one of their most reliable and honest units. Donegal halfbacks Larissa Muldoon and Nora Stapleton kicked poorly, never getting the distance their hard working pack craved, nor the weight of kick their wingers needed to catch Australia down the tramlines.
The idea of Ali Miller or Sene Naoupu rushing onto slick passes failed to materialise until the last quarter. Miller did make some heroic yardage off Stapleton’s inside balls but the Aussie were always waiting.
And they were enormous opponents. Almost French-like.
They were also technically flawed. Reilly kept reminding them of this with three lineout steals in the opening 40 minutes. From one such leap Ireland came crashing into Australian territory via Molloy.
Jenny Murphy carried hard, followed by Ailis Egan almost being driven over by Miller. There were numbers out wide but Muldoon was clever enough to show and dive over. Stapleton converted as Ireland’s World Cup campaign finally took off after a spluttering start.
That was the story of the game.
There followed some crunching collisions. Murphy was in the thick of it, twice needed medical attention before being forced ashore on 46 minutes, but every single woman in a green jersey was put her body on the line.
Until they all switched off.
After Murphy planted Nareta Marsters over the right touchline, Ireland took their eye off the ball long enough for Australia to turn matters into a game of Sevens. Openside and captain Shannon Parry (a Rio hero) took a quick throw to Cheyenne Campbell who fed Samantha Treherne in midfield.
The fullback threw a long pass out to Mahalia Murphy. The Tierney nightmare in full view as Murphy, on debut having been seconded from the Sevens programme, lived up to her reputation as the most deadly finisher in that code, gliding inside Eimear Considine.
Crucially, for Ireland, the ball moved during Treherne’s run up and the conversion trickled along the ground.
The score remained at 7-5 until the 56th minute as trench warfare became rooted in the middle third of the field.
Ireland had escaped further damage before half-time thanks to a last ditch tackle by Hannah Tyrrell on Campbell - after the hooker tore through midfield - while the try line was only kept intact by Reilly and Lindsay Peat holding up huge prop Hilisha Samoa.
But for all their endeavour Ireland continued to let the game develop on Australia’s terms. They fully deserved their second try. Forcing their way into Ireland’s 22, Parry, their inspirational leader, sneaked over. Treherne missed the conversion. Poor place-kicking is already a feature of this tournament.
Nora Stapleton held her nerve though.
The crowd finally came to life. Sophie Spence’s arrival on the paddock helped them find their voice, and the general response of Molloy’s pack. Miller also forced her way into the match.
Ciara Griffin’s impact off the bench also proved vital to Ireland’s survival - a defeat almost certainly ends any chance of reaching the semi-finals up in Belfast - as the Kerry flanker drilled a hole to the Australian try line.
Stapleton’s conversion made it 14-10 with 19 minutes to play.
Finally, Ireland found some composure. Conditioning mattered, as did their vastly superior experience.
And the power of Spence when five metres shy of the try line. She carried two gold and green jerseys over with her.
That should have been the game. But, again, almost unforgivably, Ireland switched off. It only took three minutes before Samoa flopped over the line. Ashleigh Hewson finally added some extras to make it a two point game.
That forced Ireland to draw a defensive line inside Australian territory. This they did, and victory was achieved, but the toll seems heavy.
But at least we know the heart of this team beats as strong as ever.
Now they must add a consistency of performance to have any chance of beating France on August 17th.
Scoring sequence - 19 mins: L Muldoon try, 5-0; N Stapleton con, 7-0;
27 mins: M Murphy try, 7-5. Half-time. 55 mins: S Parry try, 7-10; 61
mins: C Griffin try, 12-10; N Stapleton con, 14-10; 69 mins: S Spence try, 19-10; 72 mins: A Samoa try, 19-15; A Hewson con, 19-17.
Ireland: H Tyrrell; E Considine, J Murphy, S Naoupu, A Miller; N Stapleton, L Muldoon; L Peat, C Moloney, A Egan; P Fitzpatrick, ML Reilly; A Baxter, C Molloy, H O’Brien. Replacements: K Fitzhenry for J Murphy (46 mins), S Spence for P Fitzpatrick, C O’Connor for A Egan (both 51 mins), C Griffin for H O’Brien (57 mins).
Australia: S Treherne; N Marsters, K Sauvao, S Williams, M Murphy; L Patu, C Campbell, H Samoa; C Butler, M Boyle; M Gray, S Parry (capt), G Hamilton. Replacements: R Clough for M Boyle (HIA, 16-28 mins, half-time), A Hewson for S Treherne (70 mins), S Riordan for K Sauvao, H Ngaha for N Marsters (both 72 mins).
Referee: Tim Baxter (Hong Kong).