The Ireland Women's team endured a disappointing day at the FIRA/AER European Women's Sevens Grand Prix Series tournament in Brive, losing all three of their pool games to Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Team manager Gillian McDarby described the absence of Shannon Houston as a 'massive blow', with Ireland's inspirational captain sidelined by a late injury.
Claire Keohane donned the number 1 jersey instead and Nicole Cronin took on the captaincy, the two players leading by example throughout the Pool C campaign.
Ireland and Portugal had met in the Series' first leg in Moscow last weekend with the Portuguese gaining a 10-7 win, and this sequel was just as tight.
Ireland made early headway and Nikki Caughey ran in a third minute try to get her side off the mark in humid conditions.
Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe was involved twice as she took the ball into contact and it was her well-judged offload that allowed the supporting Caughey to slip through along the right touchline and score an unconverted effort.
Hannah Tyrrell carried strongly and Caughey and Murphy Crowe were heavily involved as the girls in green attempted to add to their lead.
But, gradually, Portugal got to grips with the Irish side and they were very close to levelling the game as half-time approached - it took some tremendous work from stand-in skipper Cronin to get over a ruck ball near the Irish try-line and force a relieving penalty.
Crucially though, the Portuguese went in front by the interval as they profited from a turnover, Caughey appearing to injure herself when the ball was ripped free from her grasp. Possession was worked wide to the left for Catarina Ribeiro to touch down and Daniela Correia converted.
Correia sent a penalty attempt wide early in the second half before a good passing move and quick ruck ball led to a second Portuguese try scored by Christine Ramos in the left corner.
That left Ireland 12-5 behind and Jon Skurr's charges were staring at an opening defeat. The girls began to lift the tempo again and when they did - running hard and stringing together some very effective phases - they looked the better team.
Unfortunately, they failed to convert their pressure into points as Siobhan Barrett was held up close to the whitewash after a slashing break from Cronin and good follow-up work from Murphy Crowe and Barrett.
Ireland then fell to a disappointing 33-5 loss in their second outing in Brive as the Netherlands pulled clear in the second half, proving clinical with ball in hand and controlling the breakdown.
The busy Keohane made an initial break and passed to an ever-willing Murphy Crowe who took Ireland over halfway.
The Irish effort was typified by tigerish scrum half Cronin who got back to bring down Kelly van Harskamp after the Dutch danger woman had cut inside Martina McCarthy.
Further good tackle from Cronin and Megan Williams forced a knock-on, however the Netherlands pounced for their first try through Annemarije van Rossum, just moments later, with Lorraine Laros converting for 7-0.
Laros then converted her own try as her weaving run took her past Cronin and Williams to score in the left corner.
The girls in green managed to hit back before half-time. Impressive footwork from Cronin got them on the front foot and although Susan Vaughan was hammered in a tackle near the corner flag, Keohane scooped up the available ball to notch an encouraging five-pointer.
But the Dutch went up through the gears in the second period, continually probing from quick tap penalties. Their third try was scored by van Harskamp who nipped in between two defenders to dot down with Laros converting.
Ireland lacked support at times when taking the ball into contact and could not get their offloads away, allowing the Netherlands to counter and another neat finish by van Harskamp extended their lead to 28-5.
Keohane provided some late spark for the Irish with a run from her own half, but the Dutch still had time to add another try as a strong hand-off helped van Rossum get over in the right corner.
A hard-fought and scrappy final round encounter was won by Belgium on a 12-5 scoreline as Ireland were knocked out of the Cup reckoning.
Skurr's side pressed immediately for an opening try as they renewed rivalries with a Belgian team that they defeated 22-15 in Moscow a week ago.
McCarthy and Williams and were brought down on opposite wings as the Belgian defence survived the early onslaught in Brive, with plenty of time eaten up by handling errors and set pieces.
McCarthy was thwarted again on the left wing but Ireland kept their composure in the French heat, recovering possession with Keohane and Williams driving at the heart of the Belgian defence. The pressure eventually told when Vaughan passed for McCarthy to dash over in the left corner after the hooter.
The good work in setting up and scoring that try was undone just seconds after the restart. Belgium's Ciska de Grave sneaked through off the side of a ruck and Ireland had no one back as she levelled at five points apiece.
The girls in green fell behind just a couple of minutes later when a succession of penalties took their toll. it allowed Belgium to get into scoring range and Gaëlle Portier needed no second invitation as she made it 12-5.
Ireland showed plenty of fight down the final stretch, with Laura Lee Walsh, Katie Fitzhenry and Murphy Crowe all attempting to split the stubborn Belgian defence, but time ran out on them as Belgium were left to celebrate a breakthrough victory at this level.
Ireland will regroup for Sunday's Bowl semi-finals in which they take on Wales at 10.50am Irish time, with the winners meeting either Belgium or Sweden in the final.
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Ireland Women's Sevens captain Lucy Mulhall speaks about the build-up to the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. The girls in green begin the pool stages against France at 12.52pm local time/5.52pm Irish time today.
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