Narrow win secures Grand Slam for Irish women

Defence the key in closing stages against Italy after Briggs penalties gave Ireland slender lead

The live pictures from RTÉ didn’t do this game or this team justice. Ireland won the Grand Slam yesterday in a small little rugby club outside Milan. That’s what really matters. The constant rain, near freezing temperatures and a pitch already badly cut up before the warm-up, which hocked it up completely, ruined any chance of an entertaining spectacle.

But entertainment tends to be reserved for rugby teams that finish third. Like Ireland have done in the previous three Six Nations. Before this campaign, Fiona Coghlan’s Irish side were easy on the eye. This year they played winning rugby. Clever rugby too. That meant adopting the David stance when faced by Goliaths like France and England.

Yesterday’s opposition, while physically bigger, still needed to be faced down. So that’s what they did. The French were scalped by Maz Reilly’s all-conquering lineout and Nora Stapleton’s line kicking in Ashbourne 10 days ago. That match also produced a brilliant try created by long-serving veterans Lynne Cantwell and Joy Neville, finished off by Ireland’s irrepressible fullback Niamh Briggs.

Briggs won it for Ireland here with penalties in the 12th and 51st minute to cancel out an early effort by Veronica Schiavon. Cantwell and Neville made less visible, but equally important, contributions yesterday, removing Italian forwards who constantly camped offside.


It ensured this game was far more punishing than any other in this historic campaign. "Some of the girls are in a bad way with some bad cuts," said coach Philip Doyle, who speaks about his players in a paternal manner. "It was freezing temperatures. And the girls don't have a lot of fat on them. But they dug in."

Taking punishment
When the heroic Ailis Egan and Gillian Bourke were replaced on 66 minutes it meant Coghlan was the only frontrower taking punishment for 80 minutes. And there were tons of scrums. Dozens of rucks to be smashed too. That she had a smile on her face afterwards was remarkable. Then again, joining Karl Mullen and Brian O'Driscoll as Ireland's only Grand Slam captains will do that.

“The pitch snapped the legs out of us, a lot of us had cramp very early on,” she said. “We wouldn’t be used to that but we battled on. Unfortunately that wasn’t the best performance to have on national television but if it makes people more aware of women’s rugby that’s all that mattered.”

The particulars of this contest have already lost their relevancy. Winning the championship and a Grand Slam shifts everything into overdrive. So does the schedule. Eight of this squad are off to Hong Kong this week for a Sevens tournament with another following straight after in China. The Sevens World Cup takes place in Moscow this June. Munster conditioning coach Ross Callaghan, who also doubles up with both squads, will be earning his euro in the coming months.

“It’s testament to Ross that we got through the Six Nations with one serious injury to Jenny Murphy [who was adamant her knee will not stop her linking up with the Sevens this week],” Doyle continued. “It’s how fit these girls are, that’s what got us through this campaign.”

Shades of the men in 2009 then. But the trick is to move forward and not, like their males counterparts, stagnate. "We've taken a huge leap and now we're going to be out there to be knocked," Doyle added. "But do you know what, that's where we've always wanted to be. We've a [15 aside] World Cup next year [in Paris] and we want to put ourselves out there.

Massive step
"We want to be in the top six in the world next year. To get from seventh into the top six would be a massive step. We've taken a major step today but that will be another huge leap for us."

The Six Nations title was won, Doyle believes, on the strength of Ireland’s set-piece. That’s down to hugely mobile locks in Reilly and Sophie Spence, while the brilliant backrow of Neville, Claire Molloy and Siobhan Fleming continually put their heads where most women wouldn’t dare.

“I’ll tell you where we’ve really improved,” said Doyle. “Greg McWilliams becoming our attack coach and the way we attack, and Peter Bracken, our scrum coach.”

Is there more to come from this group? “I hope so. I hope we keep everyone together for this time next year. We need to get more depth into our squad. There are about three or four I’ve seen this year that didn’t make it into this squad but hopefully they will burst through next year and bring it on to the World Cup.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent