Co-captain Sam Monaghan had an unwavering belief that Ireland would beat Spain and seal the WXV3 title, even though they twice trailed by 10 points and suffered two first half sin-binnings.
The Ireland Women (sponsored by Aon) did it the hard way in their final Dubai outing, bouncing back from a 13-3 half-time defeat with two maul tries from Grace Moore and Neve Jones to win by two points in the end.
Stronger opposition awaits in the 2024 TikTok Women’s Six Nations, but as a starting point for Scott Bemand’s coaching reign there are a number of positive signs, not least the five new caps, some fresh combinations, and Ireland’s first international silverware in nine years.
Winning breeds confidence and Monaghan was delighted that the team were able to pull through, finding a way to grind the Rugby Europe Women’s champions into submission despite those earlier setbacks and a high error count.
Asked about the importance of finishing WXV3 on a high as inaugural champions, she replied: “100% (it was important). It was our goal coming into this. I’m just extremely proud of the girls.
“It’s not easy going into a dressing room 10 points down at half-time with a yellow card. It just shows the character that we have in this group, that we can face a challenge and hit it head on.
“I think we stuck to our game-plan, exactly as we said, and played where we wanted to play. Spain’s defence was probably the biggest defence we’ve come up against.
“We spoke about it in the second half, we just needed to tighten up and deepen up a bit, so to get that collision (dominance) and build momentum. I think we did that very well.”
It took a full squad effort to wrestle control of the scoreboard away from Spain, who struck for an early intercept try through Claudia Peña Hidalgo. Impressive full-back Amalia Argudo closed out the opening half with her second penalty, following Linda Djougang’s departure to the sin bin.
Neither team could create much during a third quarter that was dominated by kicking, but Ireland’s forwards finally found some chinks in the Spanish defence through their robust carrying and set-piece play. The lineout was the launchpad for both tries.
Monaghan and Ulster’s Brittany Hogan played the full 80 minutes and were hugely influential, while Dorothy Wall, the front row unit, and replacements Aoife Wafer and Fiona Tuite all brought a physicality that las Leonas found tough to handle.
Try scorer Moore again showed her ability to break tackles and fight to make metres after contact, and busy hooker Jones continues to find the try-line in the green jersey, taking her haul to an enviable eight tries in 21 Test appearances.
Monaghan was proud that their hard work, which started during those first weeks under Bemand back at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Dublin, culminated in a confidence-boosting comeback victory and a trophy to take back home.
“At half-time I basically said to the team that I 100% wholeheartedly believed we were going to win that match. I was proud of every single player, not only those that was on the pitch today but the ones back in Ireland as well that got us to this point.
Girls at home, injured girls, girls who didn’t get selected, and everyone here, the staff. Just the effort that everyone has put in has been absolutely amazing.
“It’s been the work that’s been put in since the end of August, all the way to here. We’ve been building confidence week on week, and every week we’ve said it, we just want to be a bit better than last week.
“Although this was a harder challenge this week, I think the resilience we showed and the decisions we made in the second half under pressure showed how much we’re building as a squad, and the confidence we can play with now.”
A key moment came in the 69th minute when Monaghan turned down a kickable penalty that might have seen Ireland go level at 13-all. A draw would have been enough for Bemand’s side to top the table and win the first ever WXV3 crown.
The decision to go for the corner paid off when Jones crashed over barely three minutes later, putting the girls in green in front for the one and only time. Ireland’s lynchpin second row knew that the pack had that match-winning try in them.
“It’s something we’ve practised a lot,” Monaghan said of the brave call to go to touch from the penalty. “Going direct is dangerous, but that was a point in the game where we were building momentum, when you could see they were on their knees.
“Spain made a few substitutions on that maul beforehand. You know they didn’t want it. I thought we had a penalty a couple of times, but we couldn’t play with the referee, we just had to go through them instead.”
Meanwhile, out-half Dannah O’Brien delivered a Mastercard player-of-the-match performance, playing the full 80 minutes as Nicole Fowley, the back-up number 10, was unfortunately a late injury-enforced withdrawal from the bench.
O’Brien, who only turned 20 last month, landed a timely penalty before the interval and topped off Moore’s score with a well-struck conversion. She finished the tournament with a 27-point tally, and has started Ireland’s last seven games in the pivotal half-back role.
Giving her reaction after the match, she said: “We knew Spain would come out fighting, they’re an incredibly tough team. They just showed resilience right until the very last whistle.
“Fortunately we just had the courage to fight on and we got over the line there in the last 20 minutes. It’s been a tough campaign, it is not easy out here in the heat.
“Just want to say thanks to the staff, they backed us all the way through the tournament. That shows when you come on the pitch tonight and we were able to take our shots.”
Commenting on what WXV had added to the Women’s international calendar, the Tullow youngster admitted: “It’s been really exciting getting to play against teams we never normally play against. We’re really fortunate to have these extra fixtures so, yeah, it’s been really exciting.”