Leinster were crowned IRFU Women’s Interprovincial champions after a titanic tussle with three in a row-seeking Munster at Donnybrook on Saturday afternoon, writes Aisling Crowe.
IRFU WOMEN’S INTERPROVINCIAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, December 17
ROUND 3 –
LEINSTER WOMEN 21 MUNSTER WOMEN 12, Donnybrook
Scorers: Leinster: Tries: Jenny Murphy, Michelle Claffey, Cliodhna Moloney; Cons: Jenny Murphy 2, Hannah Tyrrell
Munster: Tries: Deirbhile Nic A Bhaird, Fiona Hayes; Con: Edel Murphy
HT: Leinster Women 14 Munster Women 0
Three teams went into the weekend with a chance of claiming the title, so tight was the situation at the top of the table. Reigning champions Munster, along with Leinster and Connacht, were all in the hunt for the crown as the final round of games kicked off.
Munster began the match against Leinster signalling their intent to lift their third Interpro trophy in succession and dominated the early exchanges, with half-backs Claire Keohane and Ellen Murphy keeping them on the front foot. However, the hosts gradually settled and began to pressurise their arch rivals.
Out-half Hannah Tyrrell kicked the ball to touch when Leinster were awarded a penalty in the 18th minute and from the resulting lineout, Katie Fitzhenry’s mazy run made room for centre Jenny Murphy to touch down for a try, which the Kildare woman converted herself.
Having been held up during an earlier attack, Murphy’s midfield partner Michelle Claffey made sure she got the ball down for Leinster’s second try in the 32nd minute, with Ailsa Hughes’ quick distribution from a scrum proving crucial. Murphy converted to leave it 14-0 at the break.
Munster’s best moments were coming in defence – flanker Ciara Griffin starred with a bone-crunching tackle – but the visitors showed more in attack on the resumption. Seven minutes in, they were back within striking distance when strong-running centre Niamh Kavanagh broke through and linked with Edel Murphy who sent her back-three colleague Deirbhile Nic A Bhaird over for a timely try.
It was lively winger Nic A Bhaird’s third touchdown in this season’s Interpros and full-back Murphy added the extras to half the deficit to seven points.
Suddenly, the defending champions were exerting more control and Jenny Murphy’s red card for an off-the-ball incident left Leinster down to 14 players for the remaining 30 minutes. However, Adam Griggs’ side really stood up to the task.
Teenage winger Eimear Corri did really well on two occasions to keep out Eimear Considine and the equally dangerous Nic A Bhaird, while Ireland loosehead Lindsay Peat grew in influence with her ball-carrying. At the end of one of Peat’s powerful surges, her international colleague and Munster replacement Zoe Grattage was sin-binned by referee Dan Carson.
It was Leinster’s turn to attack and they did so in clinical fashion, speedy half-backs Hughes and Tyrrell stretching their legs to bring their province back into the Munster 22. After a 71st minute penalty was kicked to touch, Cliodhna Moloney, who had a great impact off the bench, crashed over from the ensuing lineout maul for what turned out to be the clinching score.
Tyrrell tagged on the extras for a 21-7 advantage and Ireland hooker Moloney then showed her quality in defence by winning turnover ball from a Munster maul. The visitors were rewarded in injury-time with an unconverted score from international prop Fiona Hayes, however it was too little, too late for Wayne Falvey’s charges as Leinster finished top of the pile for the first time since the 2013/14 campaign.
LEINSTER WOMEN: Maria Kenny; Eimear Corri, Jenny Murphy, Michelle Claffey, Katie Fitzhenry; Hannah Tyrrell, Ailsa Hughes; Lindsay Peat, Jennie Finlay, Joanna Mahon, Marie Louise Reilly, Susan Fogarty, Carmela Morey (capt), Juliet Short, Paula Fitzpatrick.
Replacements: Caoimhe Molloy, Cliodhna Moloney, Fiona O’Brien, Katie Norris, Kate McCarthy, Niamh Griffin, Niamh Byrne, Meaghan Kenny.
MUNSTER WOMEN: Edel Murphy; Deirbhile Nic A Bhaird, Niamh Kavanagh, Nicola Scully, Eimear Considine; Claire Keohane, Ellen Murphy; Fiona Reidy, Gill Bourke, Leah Lyons, Orlaith Buckley, Anna Caplice, Siobhan Fleming (capt), Ciara Griffin, Heather O’Brien.
Replacements: Zoe Grattage, Fiona Hayes, Nuala O’Connor, Elaine Anthony, Chloe Pearse, Mona Fehily, Aine Staunton, Laura Sheehan.
CONNACHT WOMEN 39 ULSTER WOMEN 12, Corinthians RFC
Scorers: Connacht: Tries: Alison Miller 3, Orla Dixon, Carol Staunton, Ursula Sammon; Cons: Clare Raftery 3; Pen: Clare Raftery
Ulster: Tries: Peita McAlister, Amy Davis; Con: Jemma Jackson
HT: Connacht Women 22 Ulster Women 0
Scoring difference saw Connacht lose out on a first Women’s Interpro crown in two decades, despite finishing the season with an excellent 27-point victory over Ulster in Galway.
They ran in six tries, including a hat-trick from Ireland star Alison Miller, but it was not enough to bring the title back over the Shannon. Ulster made certain of that with a strong finish that included tries from Peita McAlister and former international Amy Davis.
The westerners knew they had to run up a big score in this third round fixture and they were on course when leading 22-0 at the interval. They claimed their first 10 points while Ulster lock Naomi McCullagh was in the sin-bin, Miller’s powerful running and a clever dummy buying her the space to cross for the opening try.
Fellow winger Orla Dixon was next over the whitewash, profiting from some crisp passing across the Connacht back-line, as the hosts coped well with centre Shannon Touhey’s yellow card.
There was some obvious niggle between the sides and prop Ilse van Staden, who had an otherwise impressive game, became the second Ulster player to see yellow. Connacht duly struck for their third try, scored by flanker Carol Staunton from a Miller set-up.
There was not much between the teams in a evenly-balanced third quarter, but replacement Ursula Sammon eventually touched down to register Connacht’s bonus point and there was no stopping Miller on another gallop to the line.
Although the Portlaoise flyer went on to complete her hat-trick in the closing stages, Connacht fell short of the total required and Ulster, who kept trying right to the end, gained some consolation with well-worked tries from McAlister and Davis. The groundwork was laid by Ireland centre Claire McLaughlin and replacement Maeve Liston, one of a growing crop of young Ulster players who have bright futures ahead of them.
Finishing as runners-up, with two wins out of three this month, gives Connacht’s new head coach John-Paul Walsh plenty of encouragement for next year and beyond.
“The girls played really well and we just came up a bit short this time,” said Walsh. “We let ourselves down a bit in Cork (against Munster) last weekend but the girls should be proud of themselves.”
The profile of Women’s rugby is increasing in the province with underage competitions for girls teams and that is going to have benefits for the provincial side in the coming years. Rugby is on the up in the west and Walsh wants to ensure the Women’s teams are part of that rising tide.
“We would like to keep everyone in place for next year. We go again and we know we need to step it up another level in 2017. We have great athletes in the group and when we pushed them, they responded really well.
“It might be greedy looking for the title in our first year but that was our goal for this year and it will be our goal for next year. If there are any girls around the country who would like to play provincial rugby for Connacht, they are very welcome to join us,” he added.
CONNACHT WOMEN: Mairead Coyne; Orla Dixon, Shannon Touhey, Emma Clery (capt), Alison Miller; Clare Raftery, Mary Healy; Laura Feely, Ciara O’Connor, Anne-Marie O’Hora, Amelie Roux, Valerie Mitchell, Carol Staunton, Grainne Egan, Nichola Fryday.
Replacements: Eimear Murphy, Tara Buggie, Marion Sheridan, Heather Cary, Shannen Lane, Jill Draper, Sarah Jane Fox, Ursula Sammon.
ULSTER WOMEN: Vicky Irwin; Leah McGoldrick, Claire McLaughlin, Brittany Hogan, Amy Davis; Jemma Jackson, Kathryn Dane; Ilse van Staden, Beth Cregan, Sorcha Mac Laimhin, Naomi McCullagh, Hannah Beattie, Gemma McCutcheon (capt), Aisling O’Connell, Lauren Maginnes.
Replacements: Brigid Collins, Shauna Martin, Lesley Megarity, Sapphire Dudley, Imogen Porter, Peita McAlister, Emma Jordan, Maeve Liston.