The Ireland Women set up a Six Nations Grand Slam decider with England following a hard-fought 12-7 win over Wales in Cardiff.
Their fourth victory of the campaign gives Tom Tierney's side a shot at matching the achievements of Ireland’s class of 2013 when they host their English counterparts at Donnybrook next Friday (kick-off 8pm). Tickets can be bought online here. England top the table by a single point – 19 to 18 – following today's 64-0 romp against Scotland.
Prop Lindsay Peat's second try of the Championship, converted with aplomb by player-of-the-match Nora Stapleton, broke the deadlock towards the end of an evenly-contested first half at the Arms Park.
Shona Powell-Hughes' seven-pointer then saw Wales capitalise on a Peat yellow card, but Ireland did likewise when a sin-binning preceded winger Hannah Tyrrell's decisive try – her second in as many games – with 17 minutes remaining.
A special pre-match commemoration, including a minute’s applause, was held in honour of 20-year-old Wales international Elli Norkett who tragically died in a car accident last month. Captain Paula Fitzpatrick also presented a signed Ireland jersey to Elli’s sister Lowri.
Wales built sustained pressure early on, dominating possession with Kiera Bevans’ quick passing unleashing their eager back-line and a second lineout maul causing real damage.
Ireland stood firm in defence before an excellent midfield break by Jenny Murphy should have given them an attacking foothold, however a couple of sloppy penalties conceded by Sene Naoupu and Leah Lyons allowed the Welsh to clear their lines.
Out-half Stapleton pinned the hosts back with a couple of well-placed kicks into the 22, and approaching the half hour mark, direct running from Tyrrell, Murphy and Alison Miller, coupled with a penalty awarded for a high tackle, got them into scoring range.
However, Mel Clay did really well to isolate Fitzpatrick and force a relieving penalty at the breakdown. Ireland were falling foul of referee Claire Hodnett’s whistle, particularly when trying to defend Wales’ ground-gaining mauls.
The girls in green had no reward for some powerful runs from Claire Molloy and Peat, but their patience was rewarded as the Welsh penalty count rose nearing the interval.
Stapleton set up a third close-in lineout opportunity and with possession retained and Ailis Egan controlling it at the back of the maul, fellow prop Peat plucked the ball from her and barrelled over the line past both Caryl Thomas and Robyn Wilkins.
Stapleton added a brilliant conversion from the left wing, sending her side off with a real spring in their step at 7-0. Frustratingly, Ireland were error-strewn on the resumption, Dyddgu Hywel slipping past a number of tackles after collecting a poor Stapleton kick.
Peat then saw yellow for hands in the ruck and although Fitzpatrick managed to hold up one surge at the line, Wales struck from the resulting five-metre scrum as number 8 Powell-Hughes brushed off Mary Healy's challenge and stretched out for the whitewash.
Wilkins converted to bring the Welsh level, the seven-point concession sparking a lively response from Ireland – Tyrrell almost getting through a gap on the left – but the influential Powell-Hughes got in over a ruck ball to win a relieving penalty.
It was Ireland’s turn to have a numerical advantage after Welsh tighthead Amy Evans was sin-binned for a high tackle on Kim Flood, but Powell-Hughes again came to her side’s rescue by holding up Peat’s drive for the line.
Wales won a scrum again the head and Murphy’s misplaced pass gave the under-used Miller little chance near the left touchline. Two further try-scoring chances went a-begging as number 8 Fitzpatrick was held up twice over the line, the second effort being ruled out by TMO Eric Gauzins.
The Welsh defence finally gave way in the very next phase, a strong scrum setting up centre Murphy for a charge near the posts and then Stapleton’s bouncing pass was well finished in the right corner by Tyrrell.
The final quarter hour saw Ireland hold Wales at arm’s length, preventing them from building for a score. Industrious loosehead Peat made a notable break with a strong hand-off and also impressed in an Irish scrum that was reinforced by replacement Ruth O'Reilly.
Into the dying minutes, Stapleton’s perfectly-weighted kick deep into the Welsh 22 was swiftly chased by Tyrrell. A subsequent penalty allowed Ireland to end the game on the attack and Larissa Muldoon booted the ball to touch to confirm a tense but deserved triumph.
TIME LINE: 38 minutes – Ireland try: Lindsay Peat – 0-5; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 0-7; Half-time – Wales 0 Ireland 7; 42 mins – Ireland yellow card: Lindsay Peat; 43 mins – Wales try: Shona Powell-Hughes – 5-7; conversion: Robyn Wilkins – 7-7; 53 mins – Wales yellow card: Amy Evans; 63 mins – Ireland try: Hannah Tyrrell – 7-12; conversion: missed by Nora Stapleton – 7-12; Full-time – Wales 7 Ireland 12
Referee: Claire Hodnett (England)