Ireland BEAT New Zealand! At rugby! Doesn’t that sound sweet? What’s rare is wonderful they say, but the quality of the performance was such that this was not a one-off achievement but the culmination of a lot of hard work that is paying off for this dedicated group of players and their coaches. They took all that New Zealand threw at them including some bone crunching tackles that made us all winch. They held their nerves especially in the final minutes when we feared history would repeat the cruel twist that had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the men’s team last November and Munster in 2008. Phase after phase, in the energy sapping heat, they drove at New Zealand while I kept glancing nervously at the clock which seemed to have slowed down! One mistake – a penalty, a turnover – and hearts would be broken but when the ball was kicked out and the referee blew for fulltime cue delirium! While U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” might not have been the first song I would have selected on this historic Tuesday the military beat suited our jumping for joy and flag waving. With huge smiles of our faces we savoured the moment, and felt privileged to be there and to share in the outpouring of emotion by the players, their coach/support staff, families and friends. The celebrations on the pitch and off went on so long I expect the organisers were worried that the start of the next scheduled game on that pitch between France and South Africa would be delayed!
As defending champions at the Women’s Rugby World Cup New Zealand, known as the Black Ferns, were expected to provide a very tough test for Ireland. Their record of 20 consecutive victorious World Cup matches since their only defeat, a 7-0 loss to USA in the 1991 semi-final speaks for itself. In their first pool game of this campaign they utterly demolished Kazakhstan (79-5) whereas Ireland had a tough opener against USA, coming out on top 23-17 after a very physical encounter. I had watched that match on TG4 but was delighted to be able to go to Marcoussis for this game with my niece Sinead. It was so hot even as kick-off approached at 6pm that we walked over to the shaded area in front of the stand in Alison Miller’s corner!
Due to playing three games back to back on the same pitch the teams did not warm up there. We arrived in time to see the end of the England v Spain game and then the ground staff made some repairs. Finally we heard a roar to welcome Ireland from those in the stand who were first to see the teams appear. I love belting out the anthem but with the PA speakers directly behind us I doubt my contribution was heard. There was great Irish support there, particularly in the stand and on the grass bank opposite us. The two French guys beside us were supporting Ireland too but in the stand behind were some vocal Black Fern fans.
After the anthems and the haka it was time for action. My head hoped for a losing bonus point, my heart dreamt of an upset and a win! New Zealand were playing towards us so we expected to see a lot of action on the near try line but we were delighted when that did not transpire. Ireland dominated possession in the opening quarter.
There was no big screen so it was hard to make out how close they were to the far try line. Their pressure was rewarded with a penalty when #7 strayed offside. As Niamh Briggs lined it up an oaf let out a shout of “Ireland” followed by a roar as she took the kick – he was not one of us. We were disgusted at the lack of respect and he was booed after her kick went astray. The PA announcer was cheered for rebuking him, asking for respect for all kickers.
Ireland continued to dominate, using a strong scrum and mauls they walked New Zealand backwards towards the line.
They should have been awarded a penalty try but only got a penalty. Charging from the base of the scrum Heather O’Brien nearly made the line but was pushed into touch. After twenty minutes however New Zealand were awarded a penalty against Claire Molloy (offside) and with it Kelly Brazier edged them into a 3-0 lead.
Against the run of play a ball popped out the side of a ruck, scrum half Tania Rosser reached it first but could not get the pass away safely. We watched in horror as the ball was scooped up and quickly recycled. Four passes later fullback Selica Winiata raced past to score near us. The conversion was not successful but their lead was extended to 8-0.
Ireland did not lose their belief and as half time approached they laid siege to the New Zealand line. While the medics treated I believe Niamh Briggs, wave after wave of attacks were launched, pick and go by Molloy, then Spence, Reilly and finally Heather O’Brien touched down to raucous applause and cheers. Niamh Briggs added the conversion and Ireland were just one point adrift at 8-7 with five minutes to go in the first half. New Zealand came close to scoring again before the break but the players put their bodies on the line and won a crucial turnover.
The singing provided a constant soundtrack throughout – “Ireland’s Call”, “There’s only 1 (insert name of player) .. we have the best team in the land” while “The Fields of Athenry” and the ubiquitous “Olé, Olé” got several airings also. The loud NZ man behind jeered the singing but could only offer shouts of “Let’s go Black Ferns” etc. in retort. The PA announcer deserves a mention for his efforts with the Irish names like Niamh and Siobhan, and for how his lovely French accent managed to make New Zealand fly-half Kelly Brazier sound like Kelly Brassiere! The touch judges were not up to the level of the game, my French neighbours were quick to protest when a ball was kicked out on the full but the assistant referee had not noticed. When I watched the game back on TG4 their commentators were not impressed by the officiating either.
New Zealand dominated possession for the third quarter and Ireland had to defend heroically at times. Jenny Murphy a half time replacement for Grace Davitt made her presence felt with some big tackles and she was not alone. Ireland soaked up the pressure but were caught offside. The resultant penalty by Brazier moved the score to 11-7. But they did not have it all their own way. Tania Rosser and Nora Stapleton combined for a great choke tackle to win back the ball. A few minutes later Miller won another turnover.
The game changing turning point came on 59′ when Niamh Briggs gathered a garryowen which bounced up beautifully into her arms. She took off, ball held firmly in both hands, looking for options. Alison Miller surged forward on her wing, gathered the pass and accelerated right by us!
We were jumping up and down, cheering her on and roared when she scored and the try was awarded. When she did not get up for a while I was worried that she had done an Alan Quinlan on it (injury scoring v Argentina RWC 2003) but she was OK. The conversion however was at a very difficult angle. Niamh Briggs removed the post and flag on the 22m line and then moved the microphone on the sideline out of her way. She ignored the taunt “Better get it now” and composed herself to successfully extend Ireland’s lead to 14 – 11, throwing down the gauntlet to New Zealand.
Five minutes later they responded with a penalty to level the scores when #6 Paula Fitzpatrick who had a great game did not release. Ireland kept on the pressure and seemed to sow seeds of doubt as the Black Ferns made uncharacteristic mistakes, passes going behind the player, etc. Ireland capitalised after a great break down the far wing by Ashleigh Baxter resulted in a penalty when a New Zealander was penalised for not rolling away from a resultant tackle.
Another excellent kick by Niamh Briggs brought the score to 17-14 with ten minutes left. Ireland kept to their game-plan. By retaining possession New Zealand could not score so Ireland continued to put their tired bodies on the line, fighting to the end as one and for one another. With just 2 minutes left Gillian Bourke contested the ball and won a penalty when the other player did not release. The lineout was secured, a maul, pick and go, until finally time was up and Niamh Briggs kicked the ball out. History was made!
It was a superb team effort. The set pieces of scrum and lineout were excellent. The defensive effort and trust in each other was key as they shut New Zealand down. The substitutes played their part when called upon. For those who watched the drama unfold on TV I don’t think you could appreciate how hot it was which made it tough on all the players. A final pool game on Saturday against Kazakhstan who have already suffered two heavy defeats is all that lies between Ireland and their first ever semi-final appearance at the women’s Rugby World Cup. You know they will not slip up there and should be able to give some frontline players a rest which will stand to them in the semi-final, after two very physical pool games. I am so proud of the team and wish them well in their remaining games when hopefully they will go all the way.
Team: Niamh Briggs, Ashleigh Baxter, Lynne Cantwell, Grace Davitt, Alison Miller, Nora Stapleton, Tania Rosser, Fiona Coghlan (capt), Gillian Bourke, Ailis Egan, Sophie Spence, Marie Louise Reilly, Paula Fitzpatrick, Claire Molloy, Heather O’Brien.
Replacements: Jenny Murphy for Davitt (half-time), Laura Guest for Reilly (61-66, temp sub), Siobhan Fleming for Fitzpatrick (75), Guest for O’Brien (77). Not used: Sharon Lynch, Fiona Hayes, Larissa Muldoon, Vikki McGinn.
We made our way to the shuttle bus going to Massy train station. The New Zealanders on board were running through the permutations to qualify as best runner up for the semi-finals. Their decisive third pool game will be against the USA and with both teams tied on 6 points apiece it should be another good game. A win is unlikely to suffice depending on how Canada do against England, a bonus point win will not be easy for either side but they will have the benefit of kicking off later and knowing exactly what is required. Update Aug 10: New Zealand did beat USA by 34-3 but as the England v Canada game ended in a draw both of those team progressed to the semi-finals instead. Ireland will take on England while France will play Canada on August 13th.
At the train station we met a family we had chatted to earlier that afternoon on our sightseeing at the Luxembourg gardens, although I hardly recognised them in their green wigs. My Munster boot bag with the protruding green flag had probably given us away as rugby tourists when they had seen us in the city. They had asked me then if I thought we would win, with my head I replied no but I hoped Ireland would be close enough (for the bonus point). I was so delighted to be wrong and to have decided to go to Paris for this game in lieu of a summer vacation. Some experiences are indeed priceless. For everything else there is …!
Thanks to Eileesh Buckley for permission to choose from her excellent photos. The full set can be seen here Eileesh will be at the other WRWC matches also so if you are not already following her you can find her on twitter @eileeshb.
PS if you liked this you may be interested in my first blog about Womens Rugby – the game in the Aviva v Italy here …. Or the previous post about their warm-up game v Wales in Malahide.
Highlights v New Zealand:
Highlights from the first pool game v USA:
Highlights from third pool game v Kazakhstan:
It was a privilege to be there for such a historic game, thanks to the team for reminding me to let it rule my heart rule my head! I will be delighted to wear my heart on my sleeve for this team again.
The accompanying tourist blog is now available at https://hattisar.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/paris/