Free-scoring France put Ireland out of the race for the Women’s Rugby World Cup title with a stylish and thoroughly-deserved 21-5 win over the tournament hosts at the UCD Bowl.
Ireland were hoping for a repeat of February's narrow Six Nations win over the French, however les Bleues, who hammered both Japan and Australia in the past week, have improved significantly since then and are now serious World Cup contenders under Samuel Cherouk. They advance to a semi-final against defending champions England.
The Irish hopes were effectively extinguished by first half tries from France's ever-influential openside Romane Ménager and centre Caroline Ladagnous (2), with 21-year-old starlet Montserrat Amédée kicking two of the conversions and proving a near constant threat from full-back. Safi N'Diaye, the Aon player-of-the-match, also excelled in the physical exchanges.
Pacy and powerful, and clinical to boot, France were operating at a completely different level to Ireland as they sauntered into a 21-0 lead by the half hour mark. Confidence coursed through their veins and they showed great creativity, aggressiveness and variety in attack, whereas Ireland were overly reliant on Nora Stapleton's boot to get them into advanced positions.
Captain Claire Molloy was a shining light for the home side, heavily involved in Ireland's defence and attack, but France held Molloy and company out during lock Lénaig Corson's sin-bin period early in the second half. Replacement Cliodhna Moloney's pick-and-go try in the final seconds was scant consolation as France were confirmed as clear Pool C winners, while Ireland head north to Belfast with fifth place now their best possible finish.
Tom Tierney's squad, who gave it their all in an improved display after half-time, will meet Australia – for the second time in this World Cup – in the 5th-8th place play-offs at Kingspan Stadium next Tuesday (kick-off 2pm).
Jenny Murphy laid down an early marker in tonight's winner-takes-all clash with two crunching tackles, before Annaëlle Deshayes made the first line-break, a follow-up scrum penalty against Ailis Egan allowing Amédée a shot at the posts but she was short and wide.
However, France opened their account soon after, Audrey Forlani and N'Diaye both carrying strongly to stretch the Irish defence and athletic 21-year-old flanker Ménager then took advantage of a rare missed tackle from Murphy to score to the right of the posts. Amédée converted for a 7-0 lead.
The French tails were up, again their forwards providing the platform to set up another dominant spell in the Irish 22. The home defence gave way when Caroline Drouin's deft pass played in Ladagnous for try number two, converted superbly from wide out by Shannon Izar.
It was one-way traffic as Corson galloped up the left touchline, the French statistics just past the quarter hour mark standing at 94% possession, 51 carries and 189 metres made. Ciara Griffin's well-won penalty at the breakdown gave Ireland some brief respite.
Marie Louise Reilly gained a foothold with a penalty-winning maul, but Ireland's struggles as an attacking unit were summed up by some one-dimensional phases that saw them fail to penetrate the French 22. Omnipresent openside Molloy, as ever, was setting the tone with an impressively high work-rate around the pitch.
Molloy unfortunately lacked support after taking the ball on following a Sophie Spence rip in the tackle. That came after Nicole Cronin had to react sharply to thwart an Amédée break. Nonetheless, the French attack proved too hot to handle again when Elodie Poublan's pass out the back door sent Chloé Pelle racing up the right wing. N'Diaye carried in midfield and freed up Julie Duval, who was stopped short before Ladagnous plunged over to complete her brace.
Amédée splits the posts from close range to put Ireland three converted tries behind. There was another example of the difference between the sides approaching half-time when Stapleton kicked loosely, and running it back, Amédée's inside pass sent winger Pelle charging over halfway. It took a despairing tackle from Murphy to force a knock-on and save an almost certain try.
Les Bleues continued to find holes with some brilliant hands at close quarters, Corson released up the left for a barnstorming run and skipper Gaëlle Mignot was up in support before Stapleton made a crucial interception with the try-line in sight.
There was an immediate improvement to Ireland's play on the resumption, the scrum holding steady and Hannah Tyrrell breaking up into the French 22. Retaining possession, the girls in green had the French under considerable pressure as they were caught offside three times near their try-line. Australian referee Graham Cooper reached for his yellow card to bin Corson.
Disappointingly, Cronin's hurried pass was knocked on by Moloney, and a subsequent scrum penalty allowed France, who appeared to be happy with their lot, to clear their lines. Their management made five substitutions within 12 minutes of the restart.
Willed on by the home support, Ireland came again through a quick tap from Cronin with 54 minutes on the clock. Cherouk's charges broke up the Irish momentum with a turnover and then, to emphasise their stranglehold on the game, big number 8 N'Diaye bundled Spence into touch with a thunderous tackle.
Ireland's endeavour and bravery could not be questioned, the directness of their forwards, who dug deep to win a scrum penalty, putting them in try-scoring range, but Ciara Griffin was held up at the end of 24 exhaustive phases near the French whitewash. The bruising exchanges forced Stapleton off, with Katie Fitzhenry coming into midfield and Sene Naoupu moving to out-half.
Tierney's team remained scoreless as N'Diaye's vital presence saw France successfully defend a maul and then Lindsay Peat was pinged at a scrum for coming in at an angle. An arm injury ended a typically robust performance from Murphy, seeing Louise Galvin come on for her second cap and Alison Miller move to centre.
Ireland did get some reward late on thankfully, with Moloney and Heather O'Brien both catching the eye as fired-up replacements and, as the rain came down, the hosts enjoyed 94% territory and 79% possession during the final 10 minutes.
A neat move between Eimear Considine and Tyrrell showed promise. Larissa Muldoon's pass straight into touch seemed to typify a frustrating night for Ireland, but they knuckled down for one final push and hooker Moloney was able to reach over from a metre out. Tyrrell's missed conversion from the right brought the curtain down on a hugely memorable few days of pool action at UCD. It is onwards to Belfast for all 12 WRWC teams.
TIME LINE: 5 minutes – France penalty: missed by Montserrat Amédée – 0-0; 7 mins – France try: Romane Ménager – 5-0; conversion: Montserrat Amédée – 7-0; 14 mins – France try: Caroline Ladagnous – 12-0; conversion: Shannon Izar – 14-0; 29 mins – France try: Caroline Ladagnous – 19-0; conversion: Montserrat Amédée – 21-0; Half-time – France 21 Ireland 0; 44 mins – France yellow card: Lénaig Corson; 80+1 mins – Ireland try: Cliodhna Moloney – 21-5; conversion: missed by Hannah Tyrrell – 21-5; Full-time – France 21 Ireland 5
Referee: Graham Cooper (Australia)