Replacements Ciara Griffin and Sophie Spence scored crucial second half tries as Ireland battled their way to a tense 19-17 win over Australia on the opening night of Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017.
Captain Claire Molloy said she was 'proud of the grit' shown by the tournament hosts against an inspired Wallaroos side, as the vocal UCD Bowl crowd roared Tom Tierney's charges over the line in a six-try thriller.
A scrappy first half full of bruising hits ended 7-5 in Ireland's favour, Larissa Muldoon striking first for a 20th-minute converted score before Mahalia Murphy – one of three Sevens regulars in the Australian side – ran in a snappy effort near the half hour mark.
Australian skipper Shannon Parry's 56th-minute try went unconverted before the Irish bench, including prop Ciara O'Connor who solidified the scrum, had a huge impact. Tigerish flanker Ciara Griffin drove in under a couple of defenders for a vital try – converted by Nora Stapleton – just a few minutes after her introduction.
Spence added try number three in the 70th minute, also crashing over from close range, to give Ireland some rare breathing space. Australia made them sweat right to the finish thanks to a Hilisha Samoa try, converted by Ashleigh Hewson, but with Sene Naoupu coming to the fore late on, it was the girls in green who pocketed four very hard-earned points in Pool C.
Ireland's overall performance was lacking in a number of departments, but the winning start and some impressive individual displays – the lineout-stealing of Marie Louise Reilly saw her named the Aon player-of-the-match – will see them hungry for more against Japan on Sunday evening (kick-off 5.15pm).
Nerves were obvious with a series of early knock-ons, while Australia gained the game's first penalty when Lindsay Peat infringed at scrum time – an area they had struggled in during June's International Series. Sharni Williams exploited space in the Irish defence and the visitors forced errors from scrum half Muldoon, who kicked out on the full, and off the lineout.
Although Stapleton missed touch in between, scrum and breakdown penalties launched Ireland forward approaching the quarter hour mark. Cliodhna Moloney and Molloy made the hard yards with some punchy carries before Stapleton's pass evaded the industrious Alison Miller on the left wing. The home side also failed to profit from a subsequent lineout steal by Reilly.
However, Paula Fitzpatrick pressurised Trilleen Pomare into a poor kick and the Irish pack hammered up towards the try-line in the next phase, Ailis Egan then carrying strongly to the right of the posts before the ever-alert Muldoon sniped over from the ruck. Her half-back partner Stapleton converted and Ireland were up and running.
The girls in green were showing better cohesion now, looking to create opportunities out wide, but the Wallaroos hit back with an opportunist five-pointer from Sevens specialist Murphy. Parry's quickly-taken lineout set the attack in motion, and following a long pass by Samantha Treherne, Murphy stepped inside Eimear Considine to score wide on the left. The luck was on Ireland's side when Treherne, with the ball falling off the tee, miscued the conversion at 7-5.
Strong tackling from Hannah Tyrrell and Jenny Murphy, who revelled in the physical exchanges, thwarted a Cheyenne Campbell break over halfway, but the Wallaroos were looking the better side with ball in hand, and it took a muscular choke tackle to force a relieving turnover for Ireland close to the interval.
The frenetic pace continued into the second period, Australia not gaining reward for a big scrum but their hard work in carries and contact had Ireland under pressure defensively. Just when Paul Verrell's side looking to be building for a score, 50-cap lock Reilly pinched an important lineout.
Although the introduction of fired-up forwards Spence and O'Connor improved Ireland's physicality, the hosts were too slow and inaccurate in their efforts to utilise the space out wide. Another power-packed surge from the Wallaroos, with Grace Hamilton in the thick of it, ended with Parry burrowing over from a close-in ruck. Treherne pushed the conversion wide but Australia fully deserved their 10-7 advantage.
Ireland, who lost centre Murphy to injury, attacked hard from the restart, Considine coming in off her wing and Miller threatening out on the left. Operating at a higher intensity, the girls in green used a scrum in the Australian 22 to carry up close through O'Connor and Spence. Griffin, another replacement who really grasped her chance, drove in under a couple of bodies to touch down under the posts with Stapleton adding the extras for 14-10.
With injured captain Niamh Briggs, Philip Doyle, Joe Schmidt and Simon Easterby among those watching on from the stand, the Irish forwards followed up with a brutish set of phases, eeking out the yards through the carrying of Peat and Moloney, who both showed they have great engines, and the eager O'Connor. Muldoon's inviting pass switched play to the blindside where Spence piled over under pressure from two defenders.
The try was initially awarded by referee Tim Hayes and then rubber-stamped by TMO David Grashoff. Stapleton missed the conversion on the near side, leaving Ireland with a nine-point lead and the 80-minute mark in sight.
Instead of pushing on for a possible bonus point score, Ireland were left hanging on for the result as Australia came with a tremendous late rally inspired by Parry's midfield tackle and turnover. Quick ball – something Ireland struggled to garner throughout – provided the platform for powerful prop Samoa to shrug off a tackle and make it over to the left of the posts.
Replacement Ashleigh Hewson stepped up to land Australia's only successful conversion, and those missed kicks from Treherne in both halves proved vital in the end as Ireland – aided by a Naoupu block and a powerful carry from the busy centre – controlled possession in the dying minutes before Stapleton's final kick to touch brought about a huge collective sigh of relief.
For more on the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup, visit the tournament website – www.rwcwomens.com. Buy your match tickets for the #WRWC2017 finals stages now on www.ticketmaster.co.uk/wrwc2017 and www.ticketmaster.ie/wrwc2017.
TIME LINE: 19 minutes – Ireland try: Larissa Muldoon – 5-0; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 7-0; 27 mins – Australia try: Mahalia Murphy – 7-5; conversion: missed by Samantha Treherne – 7-5; Half-time – Ireland 7 Australia 5; 56 mins – Australia try: Shannon Parry – 7-10; conversion: missed by Samantha Treherne – 7-10; 62 mins – Ireland try: Ciara Griffin – 12-10; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 14-10; 70 mins – Ireland try: Sophie Spence – 19-10; conversion: missed by Nora Stapleton – 19-10; 73 mins – Australia try: Hilisha Samoa – 19-15; conversion: Ashleigh Hewson – 19-17; Full-time – Ireland 19 Australia 17
Referee: Tim Baker (Hong Kong)