Izzy Noel-Smith’s 78th-minute try from a lineout maul was the difference between the sides as the Ireland Women were edged out 8-3 by their English counterparts in rain-soaked London.
Despite the result, Ireland head coach Tom Tierney and his players can take a lot from a very competitive performance at the Twickenham Stoop, with six starters and three replacements making their debuts.
Ireland's historic first autumn international was dictated by very wet conditions in the opening half, a lone penalty from Lauren Cattell giving the home side a 3-0 lead at the break.
Ireland captain Niamh Briggs missed a difficult first shot at the posts in the 43rd minute and the girls in green failed to profit from a prolonged attacking spell while England hooker Emma Croker was in the sin-bin.
The visitors were more inventive in attack, Sene Naoupu distributing well in midfield and looking to get the strong-running Jackie Shiels and Mairead Coyne (pictured above) involved, and Briggs deservedly booted them level in the 73rd minute. However, the England pack had the decisive say when they piled through from a five-metre lineout with replacement Noel-Smith touching down in the right corner.
As the teeming rain came down, debutant wingers Jeamie Deacon and Coyne coughed up knock-ons early on but a Sophie Spence turnover and some strong tackling from Heather O'Brien and Ailis Egan settled Ireland into the game.
The hosts, who lost 11-0 to France last week, had the first scoring opportunity, Sarah McKenna going close to dotting down Emily Scott's cross-field kick in the left corner before Cattell punished an Irish offside from in front of the posts – 3-0.
New centre Aine Donnelly pinched a ruck ball which led to a penalty and some hard-earned territory for Tierney's side. It was a short-lived attack, though, as a series of English kicks had to be covered by the well-positioned Briggs.
The impressive Coyne gathered a fine high catch but there was a high rate of turnovers as defences remained on top, McKenna covering a threatening kick through from Larissa Muldoon that Deacon hared after.
Approaching the half hour mark, the industrious Paula Fitzpatrick got her hands in to force a ruck penalty but England were soon back on the front foot, albeit that the momentum gained by a superb maul was spoiled by a fumble from Emily Scott.
Ciara Cooney, making her first international appearance in the second row, ripped the ball free in an expertly-done choke tackle by Ireland, and the visitors showed a little more in attack on the stroke of half-time as out-half Naoupu took it hard to the English defensive line and linked well with Shiels (pictured below) over halfway.
Briggs nudged a 30-metre penalty wide in the opening minutes of the second period, but Ireland continued to gain ground in attack with Muldoon sniping through on a half-break and Naoupu's short pass almost putting Shiels through a hole and into the English 22.
There was more inventive play as Connacht ace Naoupu combined with Briggs on a scissors move and after Spence made the hard yards off the back of a scrum, another back-line move almost released Coyne to go over in the left corner.
Ireland kept up the pressure, attacking via a close-in scrum with Croker seeing yellow for not rolling away five metres out. However, a subsequent turnover crucially allowed the white shirts to clear their lines with 54 minutes on the clock.
England gained territory with the boot, also probing with some well-placed chips that had Ireland turning back towards their try-line. Entering the final quarter, Tierney introduced new caps Mary Healy, Fiona Reidy and Lindsay Peat (pictured above with Healy) along with experienced out-half Nora Stapleton.
The hard graft was eventually rewarded with a well-struck Briggs penalty from just inside the 10-metre line, punishing a lineout infringement from the hosts.
The stronger finish came from England, though, as their forwards got over the gain-line again, forced a penalty and from the resulting lineout, Noel-Smith barged through for the match-winning five-pointer.
TIME LINE: 10 minutes – England penalty: Lauren Cattell – 3-0; Half-time – England 3 Ireland 0; 43 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Niamh Briggs – 3-0; 53 mins – England yellow card: Emma Croker; 73 mins – Ireland penalty: Niamh Briggs – 3-3; 78 mins – England try: Izzy Noel-Smith – 8-3; conversion: missed by Lauren Cattell – 8-3; Full-time – England 8 Ireland 3
Referee: Marie Lematte (France)