Monday, September 20, 2021



Yeah, I know I'm totally showing my age with that title, referencing as it does an obscure 80's progressive rock band, but another feature of my current time of life is no longer caring about things like that!

But I truly believe it's a title that works for this match, because Ireland turned their fortunes in these World Cup qualifiers around because of two things - a mesmerising 80-minute defensive display which kept the home side (and don't forget it WAS a home side in front of a home crowd) limited to just one try during a sin-binning, and to help create the critical 8-point winning margin, the superstar talents of Beibhinn Parsons.

For me it's very important to lead this writeup with positivity, because although there we definitely areas where Ireland struggled to perform on the day, in the context of all that had gone on over the previous seven - the Donnybrook changing room, the defeat to Spain and all of the fallout that came afterwards - for the squad to knuckle down and get this result, which was very much deserved whatever the system failures, has to be our biggest takeaway.

And another negative I'd like to attack is one where some might say "yeah, but sure it's only Italy". Although over the years Ireland have enjoyed the bulk of success against the Azzurri, including a 25-5 win to secure 3rd place back in April in this season's Six Nations, that was in Donnybrook and Italy's bonus-point win against Scotland last week showed that they can definitely perform on their own patch.

Which brings us to the actual action, when all the off-field turmoil needs to be put aside and the job at hand needs to be completed.  And right from the kickoff we got a sense of how this match was going to go.

By my reckoning there had been at least 5 minutes gone on the clock before Ireland had anything close to an attacking set of phases to create opportunities from, but that still didn't mean the home side were in control. It wouldn't surprise me if the Italian possession was high 90s for that period while the Irish territory was also high 90s - they just couldn't get around us.

So with our defensive structures so sound from the off, there were two questions facing Ciara Griffin and her team - 1) could we get our side of the scoreboard moving, and 2) could we sustain that defensive pressure for the full 80 minutes.

Well, like I suggested, we struggled with the scoring part. Lindsay Peat got tagged twice early for boring in on key scrums, we suffered from a bad case knockonitis throughout (although the Italian D deserves some credit for this) and most of all, our key lineout platform just was not producing the supply of ball Stacey Flood at 10 so badly needed.

But on the occasions when the set pieces did click, we were able to get results. It may seem trite to say all the Irish team has to do is "give it to Beibhinn" but the evidence from the past two weeks definitely makes it look that way. Still, although she got the touch down for the first try, it was the entire move from start to finish that illustrated just what this team can do when all the parts are functioning perfectly. Attacking lineout, strong maul, quick ball through the hands, Parsons score.

Like I said, we also needed to rely on our defence and the Italians really tested us, especially towards the end of the first half. Our line was under seige for pretty much the last ten minutes before the break so you could say that going into the sheds with a duck egg on the Italian scoreboard was as good for our morale as a second try.

And in this area of defence just how amazing a skipper is Ciara Griffin? If you didn't manage to see the match, the tackle in the clip below is not only one for the ages but also is just one of many example of her leading from the front. It's clear the team were rallying around her especially when the Italians had the ball.

But the 5-point lead was always going to precarious and it really looked like we needed to add to it to produce a result. So when Eimear Considine was yellow carded for a high tackle early in the second half, it was bound to heap even more pressure on our defence.

To be fair to our structures, it took a piece of broken play for Italy to cross our line. Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe was not only a bit short with an attempted clearance kick she also slightly over ran her chase meaning Italy were able to move the ball quickly and exploit that extra space, and with the conversion suddely we were two points behind.

But although Stacey Flood didn't have that many opportunities to pull the strings in this match because of our set piece and ball carrying issues, when they did come she was able to use them efficiently and in the end our pressure forced a deliberate knock on that meant it was our turn to play 15v14.

And despite that advantage when we were awarded a penalty in front of the posts it was absolutely the right decision to take the three points and regain the lead, so we did just that. Now it was a question of bringing that lead home and this is where the Parsons magic gave us that crucial edge.

No need for me to use words, just watch the clip...

Talk about leaving everyone in your wake! But hang on - for all that has been said about this run, it can't be forgotten that the move resulted in not just a try, but one that put us a crucial 8 points ahead which could deny the Italians a losing bonus point. So we also need to look at one came next...

...the quick ball from scrum half Kathryn Dane. The long accurate miss pass from Flood. Eve Higgins (part of a super centre duo with Sene Naoupu) bringing it on and shipping it to Considine. Our full back, who hadn't been having her best day, still was just what we needed at this moment to join the line at the right time, fix her tackler, pass it on to Crowe on her outside and for good measure, run a cheeky little support line that blocked a potential tackler or two. Finally, Crowe running towards the posts with a finish that made the vital conversion that much easier for her outhalf.

Amazing rugby all round.

Now we had a 4-0 split of the match points to defend and although the wayward darts and the spilled carries kept happening, the six-day turnaround meant nothing to us as we tackled like demons all the way to the last minute to bring it home. All I could think of as the final whistle blew was how the performance was being perceived back home on the various forms of media.

And to be fair, the reaction did seem to be a net positive all round. Headlines from match reports focused on the result and the heroic efforts of those like Parsons rather than the drawbacks. Plus I have to say it was great to see a great timeline of commentary on twitter provided by the likes of Three Red Kings, Loose Head and The 2nd Row to complement the usual suspects like the excellent @IrishWomens (who featured on our podcast not too many moons ago).

So...where does this result leave Ireland's qualification hopes? Well with Scotland toppling Spain in the second match on Sunday, the pool finds itself in a, to say the very least, interesting position that shows just how critical it was to deny Italy that losing BP...

The way WRWC2021 works is that the winner of the pool after next Saturday's 3rd round of matches will qualify directly to Pool B of the finals where they will join the USA, Canada and the winner of the Asian Rugby Championship (Hong Kong, Japan or Kazakhstan).

If you finish 2nd in this pool, you can still qualify if you win a further pool involving, well, three other countries - the format looks really intricate and no real point going into the finer details now, just safe to say this is the less ideal of the two scenarios for Ireland (especially since it puts us in a pool in the finals with with the Black Ferns and the Wallaroos), though after the Spain result we'd be happy qualifying either way.

Now - to finish in those top two slots, the simplest path for Ireland will be to beat Scotland. For this, we don't need to worry about bonus points or anything from the other match. Any kind of victory guarantees a top two finish and thus our hopes remain alive.

When it comes to finishing first, things get a little bit tricky. At first I thought points difference was the first tie breaker but instead it's "result between the tied teams" so what we'll need to do depends first on the result of the Spain v Italy match which kicks off at 2pm our time this Saturday.

To finish first, here is what we'll need to do based on that earlier result...
  • Spain wins with BP - Ireland cannot finish first but will need to beat Scotland for 2nd place (remember in this scenario the Scots know a BP win for them catapults them into 1st!!!)
  • Spain wins without BP - Ireland finish 1st with BP win, 2nd with regular win.
  • Italy wins - whether with or without BP, "all" Ireland have to do is get the same amount of match points as Italy in this scenario to top the pool.
  • Spain and Italy Draw - In all of the above scenarios, a draw against Scotland ensures Ireland a 2nd place finish because of our superior points difference. Should Spain and Italy draw, any kind of win puts us straight through to WRWC and a draw could get us 2nd spot (unless BPs play a factor).
So...where do all these permutations leave me as a fan? Well to be honest, they leave me kinda raging that when the Ireland v Scotland match kicks off at 5pm Irish time next Saturday, I'll be taking my seat in the media box at the Aviva Stadium with just 15 minutes left until the Leinster Men's team kick off their life in the new United Rugby Championship against the Bulls!!!!!!

Before I complain further, yes, I know there is no one entity to blame for this clash of big matches. Can't blame Leinster, can't blame the IRFU, can't blame the URC, can't even blame World Rugby. They have all needed to take several different things into account when setting their schedules and clashes are inevitable, especially with COVID still lurking as it is.

Yet my blame must go somewhere, so I simply lay it at the feet of "rugby union" in general. Events of the past few weeks have shown not only how much Women's rugby needs all the support it can get in every respect, but also that such support is very much there.

Maybe I can't speak for all 30+ thousand fans that will be at the Aviva next Saturday, but I dare say the vast majority of them would love to give the Irish women their full attention as well. So this really does need to be sorted out, and I have to say adding yet another version of the game (12s??? Really???) isn't going to help in this area at all.

But anyway that can all be debated another day. For now I have really enjoyed watching this match, analysing and harping on it here on the site, and if the calendar allows me to do it more often over the course of the coming season, I definitely will do so.

Congratulations once more to Ciara Griffin and all the squad for this victory and best of luck with the preparations for next Saturday. I'll be following you on YouTube as best as I can! JLP



Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019