Ireland must get defence right to resist England’s Grand Slam power game
Women’s Six Nations Championship: Ireland v England, Donnybrook, 8pm (RTÉ 2)
Nora Stapleton during Ireand’s Captain’s Run in Donnybrook Stadium. Team sponsors Aon will vacate their front of jersey sponsorship for ICHH, a charity fighting homelessness in Dublin since 2013, for the Grand Slam decider against England. Photograph: Inpho
Anyone remember what all the fuss was about? Never mind. This enormous challenge demands that each and every Irish player is tuned into their specific roles.
“There’s a very strong spirit in this squad that’s been developing nicely over the last few months and, while the performances to date haven’t been as accurate or as clinical as we would have liked, we’ve ground out four wins in a row to set up a very big game this Friday evening in Donnybrook,” said Ireland coach Tom Tierney.
That from Tierney is an accurate assessment of Ireland’s brave yet error-strewn victories over Scotland, Italy, France and Wales in Cardiff last Saturday. “England are arriving to Dublin on the back of a huge win against Scotland so their confidence will be high, and deservedly so. They have shown throughout the championship that they can score tries from anywhere and they have a strong and skilful pack as well.”
The warning is clear: if Ireland fail to defend with focus and technical soundness the 63 points England put on Wales or 64 points they gave to Scotland could be revisited on Paula Fitzpatrick’s girls.
That, while possible, is unlikely. Like their male counterparts, England and New Zealand are playing rugby from a different dimension to the other nations.
Ireland must ensure flanker Alex Matthews is woman-marked and put to ground before she builds up a head of steam. Same goes for Claire Molloy’s Bristol team-mates Marlie Packer and Sarah Hunter.
Emily Scarratt is a phenomenal centre but none of that will matter if Ireland can slow their distribution from halfback.
That’s exactly what England will also seek to do as Larissa Muldoon is recalled at scrumhalf for Ireland.
These are fascinating times for women’s rugby. The RFU have just rubberstamped a new Super 10 club competition which may well entice some of the best players after the World Cup in UCD next August.
It is an amateur league, with expenses and professional coaches, but might just change the way Irish women view the 15 aside game. Sene Naoupu and Molloy both are already live in England so there is an immediate draw for players of their natural ability.
But all that matters tonight is a performance. If that comes than anything is possible, as this group have proven over the years. The leadership of Niamh Briggs, and her boot, has been missed this year, but Sophie Spence and Jenny Murphy did make timely returns from long term injury.
Murphy is, increasingly, running straight at opponents. A little more support, a little more cohesion and Ireland can click. In the meantime at least they have grown accustomed to winning. Hard to see that continuing tonight but stranger things have happened with these players.
“From our point of view,” Tierney added. “We have a huge opportunity on St Patrick’s Day and for us it’s about looking to rectify some of the areas of our game that we haven’t been happy with over the past few weeks and if we can make those small changes, then Friday evening’s game should be a great one.”
Due to a focus on their Sevens programme and the small matter of winning the 2014 World Cup, the Red Roses have not won the Six Nations since 2012. In that time Ireland captured their first and second ever titles but England are bringing a power game that will be very difficult to resist.
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: C O’Connor, I van Staden, R O’Reilly, C Cooney, N Fryday, M Healy, N Caughey, M Coyne.
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 Fleetwood, V Cornborough, L Keates, P Cleall, I Noel-Smith, B Blackburn, R Burford, L Thompson.
Verdict: England win.