Plenty of room for improvement as Ireland prepare for Japan
Coach Tom Tierney will risk resting key figures with France game still to come
Ireland’s Eimear Considine is tackled by Australia’s Katrina Barker a during the World Cup clash at Belfield. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Jenny Murphy, despite receiving medical attention three times as Ireland stumbled to a 19-17 victory over Australia, is not injured. Nor is Ailis Egan or Paula Fitzpatrick. The Irish management are not even concerned despite all three, heroic and aggressive in equal measure, being replaced during the second half of the opening Pool C match.
The IRFU declared “no injury concerns” in their airtight press release. Still, it would be a surprise to see even one of this trio take the field against Japan on Sunday.
Particularly Murphy, considering her injury profile. Egan, the linchpin of a dominant Irish scrum, and Fitzpatrick, the flanker operating at lock, are key components in a masterplan that really comes down to outsmarting France next Thursday.
Maz Reilly, superb out of touch when stealing or disrupting almost every Australian throw, shipped plenty of the bumps and bruises during a ferocious contest in the old Belfield Bowl.
We have to take into account the expectation and pressure the players were under
Holding Reilly in reserve on Sunday, as coach Tom Tierney did with Ireland’s try scoring saviours Sophie Spence and Ciara Griffin, would be a risky move despite the brittle Japanese folding 72-18 against France.
Ireland clearly struggled to cope with the pressure of being the host nation but, nerves aside, Tierney along with women’s director of rugby Anthony Eddy and assistant coaches Declan O’Brien and Derek Dowling, and performance analyst Alan Walsh, have multiple areas that demand immediate attention.
“The defensive line speed let them down,” said Lynne Cantwell on RTÉ. “It’s not as if they haven’t played against teams that are better than Australia and matched that or been more competitive.
“Potentially, a bit of complacency,” added the former Ireland centre. “Yes, we talk about first game jitters, fine, but there are some serious work-ons before the next game.”
They could start with the basics of rugby – catching and passing. Both fullback Hannah Tyrrell and outhalf Nora Stapleton wasted real scoring opportunities when flinging the ball into touch before contact.
“The amount of basic handling errors, two on one’s,” said another former international Fiona Steed (also on RTÉ). “There didn’t seem to be anything else happening in the backs . . . we didn’t see them trying to isolate defenders or trying to create space.”
Spence, a former nominee for world player of the year, had a frustrating view of the areas Ireland failed to exploit the vastly inexperienced Australians.
“You could see the blindside was open all day for us to take,” said the veteran lock. “But it’s about having that vision when you are tired. When fatigue sets in you don’t scan as much for those opportunities but we will get better as the tournament goes on.”
And what of the decision to spring her from the bench?
“You got to be realistic,” Spence replied. “It is a five match tournament [in 17 days] with very quick turnarounds. You can’t play every minute of every game. Your body is not fit for it really. Everyone is going to have a bit of rotation. What I am happy with is the job I did – I brought impact.”
Unquestionably so. Tierney described the performance as “erratic” but the performance was similar to the standard reached before England pulled clear in the Grand Slam decider last March.
“Australia had nothing to lose,” said Tierney. “They will put the French under a lot of pressure. This 19-17 win might look very good in a couple of days time.”
Or not. “It was ugly but I don’t care. We won, that’s all that matters.”
Nothing new then? “No, this was nothing new.”
The impact of Spence and Griffin against the Wallaroos is further evidence that the “one game at a time” mentality cannot really exist – certainly among coaches – at such a condensed tournament. Tierney’s use of resources worked; Griffin’s powerful leg drive to the line was followed eight minutes later by Spence’s similar route to establish a 19-10 lead with 10 minutes remaining.
“Ciara Griffin and Sophie Spence would have been shoe-ins before this to start,” said Steed.
“If I was picking the team I certainly would have had their names in the starting XV. Claire Molloy said the bench will win them matches but do you want to be waiting to eek out a two-point win or do you want to have them put away? Because I really do feel they could have put Australia away if they started the way they played in that 20 minutes when scored their tries.”
That said, it makes sense to manage the exposure of key players until the humongous French pack seeks to smash Ireland’s resolve. Tierney and Eddy have form when it comes to striking a balance with selection – they switched Hannah Tyrrell, Sene Naoupu and Ali Miller onto the Sevens panel competing in Las Vegas rather than play them against France last February. Ireland won.
Granted, France were atrocious that day but they left Dublin livid with how English referee Sarah Cox penalised them at the breakdown.
“What we are trying to do is play a game where whatever is needed we can do,” added Tierney. “Especially in attack. “There was a lot of areas where we almost got the ball away or we almost created that overlap. That is improvement. The execution is the key area for us.
“We have to take into account the expectation and pressure the players were under – that is absolutely massive. It is something we are trying to embrace. We are not shying away from it but we have to be realistic. At times it caught us.”