Ireland land coveted Grand Slam the hard way in Milan

Philip Doyle’s team digs deep in atrocious conditions

Ireland’s Claire Molloy, Larissa Muldoon and Joy Neville celebrate after securing the Grand Slam against Italy.

Ireland’s Claire Molloy, Larissa Muldoon and Joy Neville celebrate after securing the Grand Slam against Italy.


Nothing glamorous about this victory but Grand Slams never come easy. Just ask Declan Kidney. A huge dollop of luck is needed but the essential ingredient is the strength of will shown by the leaders. In this team the actions of Fiona Coghlan, Joy Neville and cool-as-ice place-kicker Niamh Briggs have been contagious.

It was a match that won’t be used to promote women’s rugby, but the knock-on effect – and there were plenty – will reverberate for years to come. “We couldn’t really get to play our game at all, the conditions were horrendous,” said Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan immediately after yesterday’s nervy 6-3 defeat of Italy.

Of course, Coghlan now joins Karl Mullen and Brian O’Driscoll in a very elite club. “It was ugly but we don’t mind winning like that.” She’s right, so what. There was plenty of pretty stuff earlier in the campaign, especially the 25-0 flailing of England in Ashbourne when Lynne Cantwell shined in midfield.

This game demanded the opposite; a punishing, brutal slog with outhalf Nora Stapleton and fullback Niamh Briggs keeping the forwards’ spirits high by probing them forward with the boot. When Ireland coach Philip Doyle opened his window yesterday morning and saw the icy rain beating down he knew there would only be one way to direct the troops.

“I didn’t think the weather was going to be as bad to be honest,” said Doyle. “We had to change our game plan and it was very hard. We played too much rugby in the first half. We just played into their hands and all they had to do was wait for us to fumble. We had to switch it around in the second half.

“If that was a dry surface we would have ran that Italian team off the park. No doubt, we would have cut them up. This is their third wet Six Nations game so they’re obviously used to it. I could see it all going wrong for us. Everything as falling into their hands but testament to our girls.”

Italy were intent on spoiling the St Patrick’s Day party of 500, largely female, travelling supporters, taking the lead after just two minutes with a Veronica Schiavon penalty before Briggs levelled it up.

Pure Limerick
“We haven’t played like that at all this season. I told them this was like a club game in Munster and we would have to dig really deep. I think we got the rub of the green on Paddy’s Day,” said Doyle.

Briggs put Ireland ahead on 50 minutes but the moment of the match, the courageous play that ultimately stopped what seemed Italy’s relentless march towards Ireland’s try line, was pure Limerick. Joy Neville is a sister of long serving Garryowen backrower Paul. In the 80th minute, the veteran number eight realised something had to be done. It was a textbook defensive steal at the breakdown. It saved Ireland. “It was an incredible turnover from Joy, she’s a wizard at the breakdown. That backrow of ours is pretty special,” said Doyle.

Everything moved in slow motion with Neville unsure how referee Claire Daniels would see it. “I took the risk when it was offered when I saw her coming around the corner and she was isolated,” said Neville. “I heard the whistle and was worried it might be their penalty. Was just relieved to see the arm go up for us.”

The towering Maz Reilly grabbed the next lineout and with it came the Grand Slam.

“To be fair to the union,” Doyle was keen to mention, “they have backed me 100 percent this season with all the funding and all the technical support I wanted. Thankfully I can bring back the silverware for them. But. I’ll always ask for more. I will be going back and they’ll annoyed with what I want but that’s the name of the game. They are very open to suggestions, I’ll say that.”