Considering it was their first competitive match together in 15 months, Deirbhile Nic a Bháird and her Munster team-mates had to be pleased with how they started the Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship.
Back in the red jersey for their long-awaited title defence, a four-try first half set Niamh Briggs’ side on their way to a 34-0 win over Ulster at a wet and windy Musgrave Park.
Nic a Bháird and Claire Bennett scored two tries each on a night that saw new head coach Briggs unload her bench to give debuts to Eilís Cahill, Kate Flannery, Ciara Farrell, Heather Kennedy, Geena Behan and Gillian Coombes.
Familiar foes Leinster, who kicked off their campaign with a 38-10 home victory over Connacht, come calling next Saturday, with Munster hoping to make the most out of a second successive outing on Musgrave’s all-weather pitch.
Targeting a much more complete performance in the second round, Briggs told TG4: “I’m happy with the first 40 minutes for sure (taking a 22-0 lead). We got sloppy for a huge part of that second half, but I’m really proud that we finished out with a good score.
“Keeping any team to nil is probably the most pleasing aspect. For us going forward, we’ve got to be better than that, we’ve got to be way more clinical.
“I thought the young girls that came on did really, really well today, I was really, really pleased with that. It gives you a lot of confidence for next week.
“We’ve definitely got to work on a few issues around our defensive structure and our tackle tech. For now, we’ve just got to be delighted with the win, delighted with the nil points and also the fact that we got to cap six players.”
Catching the eye in attack, the fleet-footed Nic a Bháird set the bar high with her relentless work-rate from number 8 and the opening try via a lineout maul.
The preparation time may have been short coming off the back of a condensed Energia All-Ireland League season, but coaches Briggs, Matt Brown, Fiona Hayes and Mike Storey have put together a game-plan that is showing some early promise.
“Definitely enjoying it,” admitted Nic a Bháird, the Vodafone player-of-the-match, in the aftermath. “Briggsy and the coaching staff have given us the freedom to play ball as we see it.
“We have a short period of time to get ready for these sort of tournaments. Just goes to show if the girls can put you in the positions, that connection between us has been really good in training and it shows that we can put it together on the pitch as well.”
Even more intriguingly, with Nic a Bháird’s versatility, she was briefly withdrawn at half-time before returning to see out the match at hooker. She burst through from Muirne Wall’s quickly-taken penalty for a late second try.
Apart from their hugely influential all-international starting back row, which included Maeve Óg O’Leary and Dorothy Wall, Munster gave game-time to three more loose forwards in Chloe Pearse, Farrell and Clodagh O’Halloran, who lined out in the second row but features regularly at flanker for UL Bohemians.
Speaking about her rest period at the start of the second half, the Ballincollig native quipped: “I think they saw me knocking on a couple of times so they thought I might need a bit of a break!
“We have a kind of system where we have so many back rows, so we have a lot of opportunity for girls to come on there.
“Chloe (Pearse) didn’t start the match, with an injury, and she soldiered through it and added massively when she came on. We’re in a really fortunate position to have that quality there.”
Beaten 19-7 in last season’s title decider at Energia Park, Leinster will be out for revenge and Nic a Bháird cannot wait to lock horns with the Blues again, especially with some of her Old Belvedere club-mates set to be involved.
The ‘Belvo quartet of Dannah O’Brien, Elise O’Byrne White, Jenny Murphy and Katie Whelan all got on the scoresheet against Connacht, while teenage centre Aoife Dalton was selected as the Vodafone player-of-the-match.
The dual Ireland international, who continues to press her claims for a return to Test rugby, added: “We showed what we can do there, and we’d like to show it again against an opposition that we know is going to be very tough in Leinster.
“I know a lot of the girls there. That’s what is great about the Interpros, you’re playing against club-mates with club-mates. It’ll be exciting and it will be a big game.”
Meanwhile, Ulster head coach Neill Alcorn admitted his side were ‘a bit shellshocked’ as Munster reeled off four first half tries on the way to winning their Interprovincial opener on Leeside.
With 22 points the difference at half-time, Ulster had it all to do and they did take some positives from the game with Ella Durkan playing well at out-half and their scrum recovering from a shaky start.
It was a baptism of fire for some of Ulster youngsters coming up against the reigning champions, but teenage forwards Sadhbh McGrath and Sophie Barrett acquitted themselves well, and Durkan and Maeve Liston were the pick of the backs.
“We were a bit shellshocked to start with, we talked at half-time about what we needed to do,” explained Alcorn, following the six-try defeat on Leeside.
“The girls did well, we were just unlucky not to get any points on the board. Munster got two opportunities in the second half and got two scores from it.
“Listen, it’s a good learning for us. We’ll take the positives from it and we’ll build for next week.”
Ulster will now target a long-awaited triumph at Kingspan Stadium next Saturday, taking on a Connacht team that they drew 12 points apiece with in their last competitive meeting.
“We’ll look at our defence. We’ve worked on it quite well for a couple of weeks. We just got a bit under pressure with it,” he acknowledged.
“We’ll look closely at our own habits and our own detail and just make sure we finetune it.”