The Ireland Women finished their November campaign on a losing note but can take plenty of encouragement from their three-try performance against the world’s second-ranked team at Twickenham Stadium.
Two quick-fire tries before half-time from Eimear Considine and Lauren Delany, who made her second start at full-back, had injury-hit Ireland just 15-10 behind. With England able to bring on the likes of Marlie Packer and Katy Daley-Mclean, and ace poacher Lydia Thompson scoring three tries, they ran out eventual 37-15 winners.
The fleet-footed winger's hat-trick was effectively the difference between the sides, with a smartly-taken try from Claire Molloy, the back-to-back Rugby Writers of Ireland Women's Player of the Year, being Ireland's only riposte after the break. Still, the positives far outweighed the negatives for head coach Adam Griggs as his youthful squad showed a lot of potential.
It was the most tries and highest points total Ireland have posted in an away fixture against England – their overall best remains the 25-0 win at Ashbourne during the 2013 Grand Slam season – and there were impressive international debuts from workhorse number 8 Juliet Short and Ellen Murphy, who replaced injured out-half Nikki Caughey after just 18 minutes.
Following the ten-try clash which was played in front of a 10,513-strong crowd, Griggs said: “We asked for a performance that was going to be better than last week (against the USA) and I think the girls achieved that. We're disappointed with the scoreline, with the couple of late tries conceded. I think it doesn't reflect how hard we battled and kept England under pressure.
“We were in that game and I think we can take heart from it moving forward to the Six Nations. It's about managing the game a bit better. We definitely wanted to play with tempo and make sure that we put England under pressure.
“I think the girls did that for the most part, and when you get yourself into those good areas it's just about making sure you capitalise on them, just showing a little bit more composure. That's what these Test matches are for, that we're under the heat in Twickenham and there's no better challenge for us. We'll be better off for it.”
Praising the impact provided by the bench, he added: “The replacements were outstanding for us, you've always got to make sure you're prepared and ready to go. The likes of Ellen Murphy was called into action early and did an outstanding job for us. I thought she stood up really well. Her first cap and if you can perform like that in the heat of the battle, it's a promising future for her.”
England had three attacking lineouts inside the opening five minutes, getting their reward when hooker Heather Kerr crashed over from a maul for an early unconverted try. Led by stand-in captain Sene Naoupu, Ireland took their time to settle with some early handling errors and a lineout which went awry.
Winger Considine stood out in defence, shooting up to thwart a number of English attacks. Good carries from Naoupu, Molloy and Lindsay Peat saw Ireland advance but a Poppy Cleal rip proved costly for the visitors. Tatyana Heard soon broke down the right wing despite the best efforts of Nicole Cronin, and her offload played in winger Kelly Smith to make it 10-0 on the quarter hour mark.
A knee injury soon forced Caughey off and prompted the earlier-than-expected introduction of Murphy, Ireland's sixth new cap in as many days. She quickly combined with her former Munster colleague Cronin to get the girls in green into the English 22 for the first time, with Michelle Claffey and Considine also involved in the attack.
Molloy proved a real asset again at the breakdown, although further disruption came with young hooker Emma Hooban's injury-enforced departure just 24 minutes into her first start. As England looked to take advantage, Naoupu came to Ireland's rescue with a last-ditch sliding tackle which denied Vicky Fleetwood a try in the corner.
A second TMO decision went again the hosts when Cronin brilliantly held up prop Hannah Botterman to prevent a clear grounding, but the pressure eventually told. Vickii Cornbrough touched down from a well-executed maul, the concession seeing Ireland react with some of their best play of the contest.
A superb break by centre Claffey earned a penalty after Zoe Harrison was guilty of yanking her by the hair, and although the first attacking wave was halted by an Aoife McDermott fumble, Laura Sheehan gathered a Harrison clearance to set up a dozen phases. A close-in 38th-minute penalty was tapped by Cronin and Murphy provided a lovely assist for Considine to sprint through and acrobatically touch down despite Fleetwood's tackle.
A second five-pointer followed right on the stroke of half-time, with Peat and Nichola Fryday carrying strongly in the build-up. Lifting the intensity late on, Molloy's intelligent pass near halfway launched Delany who outpaced a couple of defenders and darted over for a fantastic finish from 40 metres out. Claffey missed both conversions but Ireland were very much back in the game.
With her neat footwork, Claffey continued to cause problems for the English defence when the second half got underway. Sheehan swooped in to retain possession from Leah Lyons' kick downfield, but a couple of penalties pinned Ireland back and Harrison's nicely-weighted grubber kick was dotted down by Thompson for a 20-10 lead after 55 minutes.
Thompson was over again four minutes later, England capitalising on a blocked box-kick from Cronin, and with Naoupu nursing an injury, Daley-Mclean and Rachael Burford moved the ball wide to release the winger. She skipped past Sheehan on halfway and cut inside to evade Delany and run in a superb solo try.
Ireland responded with purposeful carries from Claffey, Lyons, Peat and Molloy, the latter two bringing the visitors right up close to the English try-line. Molloy then exploited a gap in the defensive line to crash over and reduce the arrears to 25-15 with 16 minutes remaining.
Lyons' missed conversion was followed by improved phase-building from Ireland – 17 in all – at the end of which England secured a hard-earned 69th-minute turnover. Thompson, the player-of-the-match, then grabbed her third try in the space of 18 minutes, grounding the ball in the right corner on the back of a powerful carry from replacement prop Shaunagh Brown.
Considine and the newly-introduced Beibhinn Parsons increased Ireland's threat out wide in the final minutes, the latter stealing a few metres before a scrambling Thompson bundled her into touch seven metres out. Nonetheless, it was England who had the final say as the fresh legs of Catherine O'Donnell secured their seventh try and the only one to be converted, by Daley-Mclean.
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron (South Africa)