28 times the Irish men’s team have tried and failed to beat our New Zealand counterparts.
Sure, there have been blow-outs, but even our most recent attempt wasn’t the only time we played ourselves into a winning position only to be denied. For many Irish fans the notion of those 109 years of hurt have instilled a sense of inevitability about how we see these matches; that no matter how valiant our efforts, the black-clad ones were just too good.
Well thankfully noone told that to Goose’s Glorious Green Goddesses.
You can be sure that when they look back on the recording of this particular 80 minutes the squad will find some faults they may need to work on. And normally when I do these writeups for Leinster or Ireland teams I try to avoid making it a gush-fest and no player no matter how legendary is safe if I feel they didn’t have their best outing.
But I’m happy to make this match an exception. These girls did no wrong in my eyes. They locked into their game plan from the kickoff to the final whistle and over the course of those 80 minutes totally turned the world of women’s rugby on its head.
It wasn’t until the 20th minute that the Black Ferns got their first possession in Irish territory, yet after 26 minutes they were beating us 8-0. I had to read over that last sentence again just now and remind myself that it is actual fact. Just how we failed to score in that first quarter still escapes me.
To be fair, the New Zealand defence was pretty solid overall, but the biggest source of our frustration early on was from the ref. A couple of dodgy forward passes, a call of “use it” with barely a second allowed afterwards until a scrum was called, then Claire Molloy seemed to be easily through the gate yet was pinged allowing Brazier to give her side the lead.
And the worst early call (or non-call) of the lot was when our dominant scrum drove over their line only for Fern number 6 Rawinia Everitt to dive on it while still at Heather O’Brien’s feet. Penalty try and yellow card all day and all night.
But as we’d expect from any New Zealand side, given half a chance they will make the most of it and when our scrum half Tania Rosser threw a ball into no-woman’s land at midfield it was seized upon - and in the rare bit of broken play they were able to quickly spread themselves wide for Selica Winiata to go over.
Did our heads drop with this set-back though? Hell no. Right from the restart Niamh Briggs, easily player of the tournament so far even though I haven’t seen any of the other matches, had us back attacking their 22 and a series of relentless pick and gos later saw O’Brien diving at the post for the try, Briggs popped over the easy two and we were back in it.
Amazingly the third quarter was almost a carbon copy of the first only with the teams reversed. This time it was New Zealand putting us under intense pressure and once again the defence was holding firm. The territory did yield some points however, as Brazier kicked a penalty on 46 minutes to make it 11-7.
Then around the 60 minute mark having retrieved a long clearance from Stapleton in their own half, Renee Wickliffe chipped over the Irish defence to see if there was any advantage to be gained. Trouble with that strategy was that she kicked it to Briggs and the ball bounced perfectly into her grasp.
There was only one thing on her mind…to power forward into a position where she could set free her winger Alison Miller. The timing of her pass could not have been better and after smoking Jensen the Fern scrum half on the outside, Miller evaded the last-ditch tackle by Brazier for an amazing second try for Ireland.
But this chapter of the match wasn’t quite finished. It was clear every point was going to be vital, and with Jonathan Sexton looking on from the crowd, Niamh Briggs hit as sweet a touchline conversion as you’ll ever see to make it 14-11 to Ireland.
Unfortunately that particular lead was to last just a few minutes as a Brazier penalty tied things up again. But shortly after that, American referee Laura Berard redeemed herself in my eyes by awarding a pen for not rolling away; though she heaped more pressure on Briggs by making her move the ball back away from the more central position where she had placed the tee - luckily for us this only makes her more determined to nail the kick and the lead was back to three.
“All” we had to do was see out the final 10 minutes or so. Given it was the reigning world champions we were facing, and given this was virtually the same Irish squad who had a hard-fought win over the USA just four days earlier, our defence would surely be forgiven for being shattered by this stage.
But leading the line on the tackling front were Lynne Cantwell and in the second half, Jenny Murphy (though Grace Davitt has done fine work in her starting role) and even when NZ got past our first wave of tacklers once or twice in the closing stages, their players were tiring as well and our excellent scramble defence was more than able to see off the danger.
Eventually it was Murphy who won a penalty at halfway which meant we could see out the game with pick and gos in their 22. I was on my feet, counting down every second. Most memorable moments at the end were sub Laura Guest mistaking the 5m line for the tryline and the reaction of disbelief from Heather O’Brien coming off the bench when the final whistle did go. That showed just how much this result meant to the girls and nothing can ever take it away from them.
Interviews with the players since, however, show that they are not going to let this result go to their heads. Coach Doyle is now in an enviable position, in that while Kazakhstan can’t be taken for granted in our final pool match this Saturday, he can definitely afford to rest a few players as merely winning is all that is required, there is no need to take risks for the sake of a try bonus.
But for now, let us continue to bask in the glory of a first-ever achievement for Irish rugby. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of us facing the Black Ferns again in this tournament, but whether it be them, the host French, the strong English or anyone else for that matter, nobody will relish facing this amazing Irish team.
Here’s hoping more and more fans of the game back here at home can take notice. So what if some will call it a bandwagon; everyone is free to hop on.
One thing’s for sure…the new fans will have a hell of a job matching the levels of support offered by those in Marcoussis cheering the girls on so far - they have been just as outstanding as the players themselves. JLP
Published August 7, 2014