Sporting milestones: The day Ireland cooked New Zealand’s goose in Marcoussis

Ireland’s Nora Stapleton, Ashleigh Baxter and Niamh Briggs celebrate at the final whistle. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

In February the tweeters among them came alive. Not about rugby or to remember Marcoussis. One by one they sent love to their former coach over in Connecticut.

“The girls have been unbelievably supportive of Sarah,” said Greg McWilliams, now head coach at Rugby United New York, as his young wife battles through chemotherapy.

It got them thinking about each other again.

The 2020 reconnection bug recently had these history makers laughing through a live stream of the Black Ferns game on that blistering August evening six years ago.

Lynne Cantwell: Our WhatsApp group – ‘Once Were Warriors’ – is a combination of the 2013 and 2014 teams. We are not always active but knowing the game was being shown I asked: ‘Girls, will we Zoom?’

Greg McWilliams: I was able to show them the twins.

Gemma Crowley: We all got to see Lanarose and Archie.

McWilliams: What was so funny is the same dynamics they had as a team are still there. It’s amazing to see them all doing their own thing but uniting to take the piss out of Goose.

Goose being Philip Doyle, the only coach to guide Ireland into a World Cup semi-final. Scotland recruited him last year. Many of the team are travelling down this path. Laura Guest just did three seasons as Munster head coach, Grace Davitt is with Malone RFC, Maz Reilly and Nora Stapleton can be found in Old Belvedere while Sophie Spence (Penclawdd RFC) and Tania Rosser (Clontarf) oversee male teams. A few, like Jenny Murphy and Larissa Muldoon, are still searching for international caps.

None of them are currently employed by the IRFU. There’s still plenty of time for that.

August 5th, 2014: Ireland v New Zealand, World Cup pool stages, Marcoussis, France

The night before games a mystery guest presents each player with her jersey. Could be a mother or father, one time Katie Taylor showed up, but on the eve of their greatest performance an old friend came to visit.

Crowley (manager): It was always somebody who meant something to the squad. Joy Neville played an instrumental role for so many years and after the Grand Slam in 2013, for her own personal reasons, she stepped aside.

Cantwell (vice-captain): Through our entire career it had been me, Fi and Joy.

Fiona Coghlan (captain): It was really special for the girls.

Neville: Can’t remember what I said but along the lines of being very jealous they were getting to play New Zealand.

Three years later Neville refereed the World Cup final between New Zealand and England in Belfast. But on this night she sent her former team-mates away to bed smiling.

Goose: I walked into the team room and they were watching Frozen. All of them singing Let It Go. And when they sang I knew they were happy.

“It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and breakthrough/No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free.”

The Marcoussis bolthole is their male counterparts worst nightmare – shuttered dusty village with Paris a tricky 25km by taxi or two trains – but on her pre-tournament recce Crowley grasped the value of strolling from training pitch to team room in French rugby headquarters. Come match day it felt like a home venue.

Coghlan: You would think being stuck in the middle of nowhere in these tiny rooms would be a problem but I absolutely loved it.

Crowley: If people enjoy each other’s company it makes an enormous difference.

McWilliams: Gemma is so good at her job.

Coghlan: We were supposed to change room-mates after the first week. We did a secret ballot and if one person asked to change we all would, but everyone was happy out.

Crowley: It always felt like we were meeting up with family. Myself and [bag man] Andy Weir would come into camp the day before, and so would Goose when he could, out of our own pocket. But that didn’t matter. I had played with the girls and knew what they had been through over the years. As a management we didn’t want to leave any stone unturned for them.

McWilliams: The more I get into coaching the more interested I am in what makes a group tick. Sometimes the input of a coach is less than you would think if they have the right staff around them.

Crowley: I found [Inpho photographer] Dan Sheridan’s little nuggets of wisdom to be exceptional. From the outside Dan took the photos but he had the experience of being in high-pressure environments, in Ireland and Lions dressingrooms on tour. He is such a calm, cool, collected guy.

McWilliams: Goose is so good at bringing people together. If you are carrying the water he’d make you feel that was important. He allows people to be themselves. You can try and change his mind.

Coghlan: I was rooming with Claire Molloy for the whole tournament and we are completely different personalities. She’s savage. I imagine her attitude to fighting the pandemic is: let’s take it on!

McWilliams: We never took ourselves too seriously.

Coghlan: One bad egg can ruin it. We put time into the selection policy. Two nights before each game we’d get the team by email at 5pm. You could go to the coaches for feedback but come dinner at 7pm no one can be sulking.

After beating a decent US Eagles side 23-17 in the opening game, there was a four-day turnaround before Ireland’s first ever meeting with the Black Ferns.

Cantwell: There was an element of naivety because we had no reference point. There was a giggly energy, a nervous excitement.

Schmidt, Nucifora and the Sextons

Cantwell: Joe was there and Johnny.

Goose: As far as I know that was the meeting that got Johnny back from Racing. They were killing two birds with one stone.

Sitting either side of the young Sexton family was Joe Schmidt and the IRFU’s brand new performance director David Nucifora.

Joe Schmidt watches from the stands in Marcoussis. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Joe Schmidt watches from the stands in Marcoussis. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Goose: I rang him. ‘Joe, need a favour. Stand at the door to the changing room after the warm-up but please don’t say anything to the girls. Acknowledge them, but not a word, okay?’

Cantwell: We knew Joe was watching our warm-up. It perked us up. We knew we were very good and we wanted to show him.

Goose: When they walked by you could see it on their faces. That’s all I wanted him to do.

Schmidt went back into the stand to dote on Luca Sexton.

The coach-captain discussion about the haka didn’t last long.

Coghlan: Why are we wasting energy on this? Let’s just stand there. After, we went into a huddle. Bracks, our scrum coach, had a saying . . .

Peter Bracken: Let’s Go Fucking Mental.

Coghlan: That’s what we all screamed.

Sophie Spence: We all had these big grins.

Cantwell: The day was beautiful. The crowd sensational. Oh God, looking back you realise their value. They travelled over and owned the place.

Ireland supporters made a big impression in Marcoussis for the game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland supporters made a big impression in Marcoussis for the game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Under a blistering sun Ireland tore into New Zealand, pinning them in their 22 for 20 minutes. Niamh Briggs missed an early penalty but the solidity of the lineout maul and scrum promised seven points.

Niamh Briggs looks on as both packs scrum down. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Niamh Briggs looks on as both packs scrum down. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Coghlan: Before one of the scrums five metres out, a hugely intense moment, Tania [Rosser, scrumhalf] starts singing.

Maz Reilly: She was singing along with the Irish supporters waiting for the scrum to set.

Coghlan: The most bizarre moment ever. Okay Tan. Whatever works for you.

There are multiple examples of referee Leah Berard and her officials being way below the required standard.

Coghlan: We had scrum dominance. Sarah Cox [the touch judge] should’ve called for a penalty try. Watching back it was just scandalous.

Goose: 17th minute penalty try. All day. It was a disgrace and four minutes later we were under our own posts.

Ireland 0-3 New Zealand

Brazier slotted the penalty after a textbook turnover by Molloy was whistled by Berard: “Green seven through the gate please.”

Crowley: A lot of teams would put the head down. Not the girls. They had come up against a lot worse crap over the yearsto let that get to them.

Goose: Before every World Cup starts the coaches are brought into a room with the head of referees, Joel Jutge. Most are scared shitless of him. I stood up: ‘What guarantee can you give us the scrum will be refereed properly when half your officials are Sevens referees?’

Mr Jutge was unhappy.

Goose: He was disgusted with me but a week later we had that ridiculous call.

Grace Davitt was in the wars. In 10 brutal minutes both flankers, Rawinia Everitt and Linda Itunu, emptied her while centre Huriana Manuel elbowed her in the chest.

Davitt: Greg filled us with confidence. ‘You are fitter, faster, stronger. We are going to keep coming around the corner.’ That’s probably why I got nailed so many times.

Goose: Gracie got creamed but she gave it as well.

Davitt: I had the worst whiplash you’d ever imagine. The physio [Dom Hoban] thought I’d torn the sternomastoid muscle in my neck. I struggled to lift my head the next day.

Coghlan: She kept bouncing back up.

Davitt: It was the first and only game of rugby my brother Michael had seen me play. He came over from Cambodia. When he saw me being hit and on the ground he was like ‘that’s it, she is not going to get back up’.

Ireland 0-8 New Zealand

From a turnover and dizzying counterattack fullback Selica Winiata dashed clear.

Cantwell: Ah right, of course, New Zealand can score from one mistake. We were wondering where you were.

Ireland 5-8 New Zealand

Heather O’Brien wouldn’t finish the game but the number eight cleverly used the post to claim Ireland’s hard-earned try on 32 minutes.

Crowley: She broke her finger and the nail came off. It was horrible. We thought her tournament was over.

Eight days later O’Brien started the World Cup semi-final against England.

Ireland 7-8 New Zealand

Briggs, despite being hurt in the build-up, converted.

Goose: To be fair, calls went against both teams. Look at Maz on our tryline before half-time. Ball squirts out and her six foot four inch frame gets down on it but she presents on the New Zealand side!

Reilly was saved by a ferocious clear out from Ailis Egan. When Stapleton kicked it dead the Irish players sprinted for the shade, bumping Kiwis GAA-style. The crowd went ballistic.

Ireland’s Ailis Egan is tackled by Kathleen Wilton and Amiria Rule of New Zealand. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland’s Ailis Egan is tackled by Kathleen Wilton and Amiria Rule of New Zealand. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Davitt: In the changing room I was holding myself together. Just keep going. Greg came over ‘Grace, we are going to sub you off.’ I shuddered. I had given everything. I was so sore! Jenny and Briggsy were ‘on [concussion] watch’ so I knew I was going to have to play Kazakhstan.

Four days later she played 80 minutes.

Goose: The best sub I’ve ever made was Jenny Murphy at half-time. I was going down the tunnel with Greg – ‘She’s the game changer now.’

Jenny Murphy: I heard them! I was in my boots looking at the ground because the blue rubbery tile was slippy and I slowed down. They were right behind me.

Goose: She was immense. The Kiwis did not like her physicality.

McWilliams: Jenny came to us as a Gaelic footballer but she had this explosiveness.

Murphy: I saw Amiria Rule sizing me up. I wanted her to run at me all day.

To say Murphy wreaked havoc is an understatement. She dominated seven collisions in 17 minutes.

Murphy: It was a fun game to play.

Ireland 7-11 New Zealand

After Molloy, a constant nuisance over opposition ball, destroyed another New Zealand ruck Berard pinged Paula Fitzpatrick for going off her feet.

Brazier’s penalty felt like the beginning of the end. The onslaught eventually breached the Irish line only for a Kiwi – winning her 50th cap for Ireland – to deny them a certain try.

Goose: We worked really hard on choke tackling. Tania hung onto Winiata for dear life until reinforcements arrived.

Cantwell: It was really exciting. You are hitting, hitting, hitting. And you are not letting them through so you begin to realise this is what it takes to stop New Zealand from scoring. Oh I like this feeling: give me more, give me more!

Goose: Lynne Cantwell was incredible in defence. She pushed them from sideline to sideline all day long.

Cantwell: I was having ice baths every morning for three days after. Never been battered like it.

Ali Miller to the rescue

Ireland’s Alison Miller finds her patch blocked against New Zealand. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland’s Alison Miller finds her patch blocked against New Zealand. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Then, on the hour mark, Renee Wickliffe chipped out of her own half . . .

Crowley: Ali and Briggs have a connection going back to playing together in WIT.

Goose: I always gave our video analyst Len Browne tasks. One was their tells in the lineout, the other their kicking game.

Coghlan: We had identified a disconnect in their chase line. That’s where Briggsy came in.

Goose: The abiding memory for me is Briggsy’s pass to Ali Miller. She is falling away, which technically isn’t right, but it is a majestic pass.

Spence: Me and Briggsy got to her first but after sprinting half the pitch poor Ali wasn’t doing well.

Crowley: Niamh was playing the best rugby of her life. If you had never seen this team play before you’d be there: ‘Not a hope she is going to slot that over from the touchline.’ Class.

Ireland’s Alison Miller gets over for her try. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland’s Alison Miller gets over for her try. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland 14-11 New Zealand

Cantwell: Nobody is ever truly confidant against any New Zealand team because their narrative is: we’ll get you regardless. The men had lost on 80 minutes the previous November.

Coghlan: All summer there had been a huge focus on fitness and understanding the game. The commitment was unbelievable. Family took a back seat.

Goose: Two words came up from Joe: ‘Keep playing’.

Cantwell: I remember Greg saying ‘Do we need to change nine, is Tan getting tired?’ I looked at him: ‘NO’. We needed stability. We had our foot on their heads.

McWilliams: Lynne and Tania are the two players I have coached who have challenged me the most. Which is what you want. Lynne was an unbelievably smart rugby player. Same goes for Tania.

Goose: Paula Fitzpatrick came of age that day. Now, she gave away two penalties that Brazier kicked but she brought the physicality directly to that Kiwi pack.

Ireland 14-14 New Zealand

Fitzpatrick quickly atoned when nimbly stepping Everitt and charging into the 22 where she was grounded by a posse of defenders.

Berard: “Black 18 not rolling.”

Slowly, Briggs walks up. McWilliams, in caddy mode, arrives with the tee and wind updates. Berard spots the ball has sneaked a few yards in field. The Garda goes through her usual routine of three steps back, four to the left, quick chat with herself, deep breath before the cleanest of strikes.

Ireland 17-14 New Zealand

Goose: Niamh’s clearance kick [on 72 minutes] over the winger’s shoulder and into touch was a boomer. A forward’s dream when getting up from a ruck is to run 50 metres down field, all of them thinking, ‘we have them’.

Lynne Cantwell and Jenny Murphy celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Lynne Cantwell and Jenny Murphy celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Aftermath

Coghlan: It was our most complete performance. The New Zealand girls said to us: ‘Don’t let that be your final’ but unfortunately it was. We were poor against England.

Goose: You can’t stop a juggernaut rolling down hill.

Murphy: Girls I’ve talked to only started playing rugby because they watched Ireland beat the Black Ferns. That’s pretty cool.

Spence: It was magical. Fi said it best: we can bump into each other 25 years later and still have this special moment in common.

Goose: Joe Schmidt bought me my first pint that night. When they beat them in Chicago I text him ‘Welcome to the club’.

Davitt: All my family was there and I wanted to celebrate with them but I was picked to be drug tested. There was a woman with a clip board. I dragged her up the grass bank into the crowd.

Cantwell: People question if it was a good Black Ferns era. A while ago I was asked to name my greatest ever women’s rugby team. Six of them were in it. It changed their approach to the 15s game. Now they are unstoppable. Thanks to the Irish.

The team

The Ireland team line up for the anthems before the game against New Zealand. Photograph: Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The Ireland team line up for the anthems before the game against New Zealand. Photograph: Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Fiona Coghlan: Ireland’s most successful captain at a major tournament. Since retiring the Clontarf woman has carved a niche in rugby media and with Navy Blue sports agency when not preparing her students for the Leaving Cert.

Philip ‘Goose’ Doyle (head coach): Stepped down after the World Cup. Doyle returned to women’s coaching with Ulster before being appointed Scotland head coach this season. Took Andy Weir with him.

Greg McWilliams (attack coach): RUNY head coach and US Eagles attack coach. Became director of rugby at Yale University in 2014, having previously guided St Michael’s College to their first ever Leinster Schools Cup in 2007. Gifted acoustic guitarist.

Peter Bracken: After a 10-year career at tighthead for Connacht, Wasps, Bristol, Harlequins, Dragons and Carcassonne, the Offaly man became a scrum doctor.

Gemma Crowley (manager): Unsung hero behind the scenes. Went straight from managing Ireland to working at the 2015 World Cup – having previously been at London 2012 – before touring with the British and Irish Lions in 2017. Expected to play a key role on the Lions 2021 tour of South Africa. Also, general manager of Rugby Travel Ireland.

Niamh Briggs: Captained Ireland to a Six Nations title in 2015. Cursed by injury in recent seasons, she has been honing coaching skills with Munster and at UL Bohs.

Ashleigh Baxter: The brilliant winger, who studied aerospace engineering at Queen;s University, was oddly switched to flanker and while still listed in the national Sevens programme she is recuperating from injury.

Lynne Cantwell: Retired after the 2014 tournament as Ireland’s most capped female. A physiotherapist by trade, based in London, she’s a Sport Ireland board member with a bright future ahead of her in any number of fields.

Jenny Murphy: Plagued by injury. Despite a try-scoring return for the Barbarians against Wales last year, the 30-year-old was overlooked by Ireland selectors and intends to relocate to New Zealand in search of top-level rugby. Coaching Naas RFC women’s team.

Grace Davitt: Malone RFC coach and radio commentator for RTÉ. Mechanic in Belfast Harbour working on the mobile cranes and ramps from ship to shore that keep essential food supply lines, salt, oil, gas, animal feed and coal coming into Northern Ireland from the UK.

Ali Miller: The confrontational Laois winger, with a solid GAA background, retired from international rugby in 2019 after a superb career. Sky Sports athlete mentor and teacher (history and PE).

Nora Stapleton: Worked in the IRFU as a development manager before taking the lead role in implementing Sport Ireland’s women in sport policy. Coaching Old Belvedere first XV with Reilly.

Tania Rosser: A Kiwi by birth, also played international netball and currently coaching in Clontarf. Mentor, who focuses on getting people in shape and healthy through nutrition.

Gil Bourke: Still playing for Harlequins in the English Premiership having spent the 2018/19 season with Stade Francais.

Ailis Egan: Focusing on a new career with the national adult literacy agency as a project officer but intends to keep her hand in coaching for Old Belvedere.

Sophie Spence: Retired from international rugby after being omitted from 2018 Six Nations squad. The 2015 nominee for world player of the year created the Spence Academy before moving to Wales to open a café in Gowerton and coach Penclawdd RFC.

Maz Reilly: Retired after 2017 World Cup. Coaching Leinster teams and Old Belvedere when not working as a Sport Development Officer for Dublin City Council or asking questions pitchside in the Pro 14 for Eir Sport.

Paula Fitzpatrick: Went back playing hockey for Glenanne and she turned into a triathlete, when not doing arctic marathons with O’Brien. Coached in the PSA academy but her primary job is research director at Carlow IT where a key focus is the demands place on female athletes.

Claire Molloy: Specialises in emergency medicine in Cardiff A&E at the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still plays for London Wasps and hopes to return to the Ireland squad in 2021 after taking a season off to focus on her career.

Heather O’Brien: Runs a physiotherapy clinic in Mallow but her passion after rugby is adventure racing. That’s 400km of mountain biking over sand dunes and marathon distance treks with river crossings. No bother.

Siobhán Fleming: The special needs assistant and former Munster captain is still playing age 38.

Laura Guest: Munster head coach for the past three seasons having cut her teeth with Highfield.

IRELAND: Niamh Briggs (Munster); Ashleigh Baxter (Ulster), Lynne Cantwell (Exile), Grace Davitt (Ulster), Alison Miller (Connacht); Nora Stapleton (Leinster), Tania Rosser (Leinster); Fiona Coghlan (Leinster, capt), Gillian Bourke (Munster), Ailis Egan (Leinster); Sophie Spence (Leinster), Marie Louise Reilly (Leinster); Paula Fitzpatrick (Leinster), Claire Molloy (Connacht), Heather O’Brien (Munster).

Replacements: Sharon Lynch (Leinster), Fiona Hayes (Munster), Laura Guest (Munster) for ML Reilly (60-65 mins) & H O’Brien (76 mins), Siobhán Fleming (Munster) for P Fitzpatrick (74 mins), Larissa Muldoon (Exile), Jenny Murphy (Leinster) for G Davitt (half-time), Vicky McGinn (Leinster).

NEW ZEALAND: S Winiata; R Wickliffe, Huriana Manuel, A Rule, H Hireme; K Brazier, E Jensen; K Wilton, F Fa’amausili (capt), A Nelson; E Blackwell, J Patea; R Everitt, L Itunu, C Robertson.

Replacements: J Lavea for J Patea (52 mins), R McKay for K Wilton (53 mins), C Richardson for H Hireme (58 mins), ST Ohare-Fox for A Nelson and A Savage for C Robertson (both 65 mins), K Cocksedge for E Jensen (70mins).