Late tries from Sophie Spence and Paula Fitzpatrick put a gloss on the final scoreline at Kingspan Stadium as the Ireland Women were well beaten by Australia, who ran out impressive 36-24 winners of this afternoon’s 5th-8th place play-off.
The eager crowd at the home of Ulster Rugby were treated to nine tries and 60 points in an exciting second meeting of these teams. The Pool C opener almost two weeks ago ended in a tight 19-17 win for Ireland, but the Wallaroos, with try-scoring tighthead Hilisha Samoa earning the Aon player-of-the-match award, turned the tables in comprehensive fashion today.
An Ailis Egan maul try and a superb solo score from Alison Miller (pictured below) cancelled out Australian captain Sharni Williams' eighth-minute opener. However, the Wallaroos' powerful carrying – particularly from their front row and centres – wore down the home defence for Sarah Riordan and Samoa to touch down. Ashleigh Hewson added both conversions for a 19-12 half-time lead.
Williams and her team-mates had the result sewn up by the 65-minute mark, as Ireland struggled to cope with the first half withdrawals of skipper Claire Molloy and Jenny Murphy due to head injuries. Hewson kicked a penalty either side of seven-pointers from Millie Boyle and Mahalia Murphy.
Replacement scrum half Larissa Muldoon injected some pace and direction into the Irish attack, allied to a green-shirted scrum that became dominant in the absence of the replaced Samoa and Liz Patu. It provided the platform for Sophie Spence and Paula Fitzpatrick to cross the whitewash in the final six minutes, with Hannah Tyrrell successful with the final conversion.
Outmuscled and outplayed today, Ireland's second successive defeat means they will play Six Nations rivals Wales in the 7th-8th place play-off at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 2pm). The winners of that game will qualify directly for the 2021 Women's Rugby World Cup.
Australia had most of the early possession, using their forwards in pods to make decent ground and force a penalty past halfway. Tom Tierney's side were too passive in defence, Sene Naoupu shrugged off too easily by Mahalia Murphy and Molloy whistled up by referee Ian Tempest for a breakdown infringement.
The Wallaroos hit the front inside 10 minutes, strong carrying from front rowers Cheyenne Campbell and Samoa getting them into scoring range before Katrina Barker switched play to the left where skipper Williams threw a dummy to get in between Louise Galvin and Naoupu and touch down in the corner.
After the missed conversion from Hewson, Ireland responded strongly with Anna Caplice making a good impact in place of Molloy. The pack unleashed a bulldozing maul from which Lindsay Peat just knocked on short of the try-line. A couple of close-in penalties allowed the Irish forwards to continue to knock on the door and after Peat was held up, a third maul effort paid dividends when Egan was driven over to make it five points apiece.
Nora Stapleton's pinpoint conversion edged Ireland in front, and suddenly their tails were up. They ended the first quarter 12-5 to the good, Jenny Murphy's well-placed kick up the left catching Nareta Marsters out of position and Miller swooped on it, brilliantly cutting inside Samantha Treharne and handing off Barker to run in her second try of the tournament.
Stapleton, who missed the conversion, kept Ireland on the front foot with some intelligent kicking off Nicole Cronin's accurate passing. However, the Australian pack – profiting from a quick lineout – began to get over the gain-line with regularity again. They went through 15 bulldozing phases before Rebecca Clough was held up by a combination of Tyrrell and Marie Louise Reilly.
Nonetheless, Ireland had leaked three penalties in a row before that, and from the subsequent scrum, a clever switch involving Williams and Riordan opened up the Irish midfield and the latter handed off Stapleton to charge in under the posts for a Hewson-converted try.
Ireland's defensive workload increased as Australia continued to punch holes and benefit from some dominant physical exchanges. The Irish line-speed was too slow as Williams, who was integral to the Wallaroos' play, sent Naoupu and Murphy crashing to the ground, with tighthead Samoa then able to plunge over for try number three from a close-in ruck. Hewson converted crisply for a seven-point lead.
The statistics at half-time did not make for good reading from an Irish point of view, with Australia making 76 carries over the gain-line and making 342 metres in all, compared to Ireland's 13 carries and 105 metres made. The hosts' 13 missed tackles – 24 by full-time – were also especially costly.
A breakdown penalty won by Egan lifted Ireland on the resumption, but territorially the Wallaroos were very much on top as their big carriers continued to make comfortable yardage. They increased their lead 10 minutes in, a couple of penalties inviting them forward and after a lineout maul, flanker Boyle burrowed her way over for Hewson to convert – 26-12. There were question marks over the grounding but the score stood.
Tierney reacted by bringing on Muldoon, Leah Lyons and Spence, but Stapleton almost gave away a fifth try when she was blocked down by Treharne five metres out from the Irish whitewash. Thankfully for the girls in green, the ball bounced over the end-line. A subsequent high tackle from Spence allowed Hewson to knock over a central penalty to put 17 points between the sides.
Ireland were unable to get anything purposeful going in attack, leaving the Wallaroos to dictate play. From the platform of a lineout on the Irish 22, Riordan's dummy run and a neat set-up from Williams played in winger Murphy for a 64th minute try, converted by Hewson. Once more Ireland's defence was not of the required standard with Stapleton, Naoupu and Caplice the guilty parties this time.
Donegal woman Muldoon was Ireland's liveliest player in the next few minutes, breaking into space from a quick scrum turnover before Hana Ngaha rescued the situation for the Australians by gaining a penalty at the breakdown. Muldoon was also held up in a maul after a wraparound involving Ciara Griffin.
There were further encouraging signs as a second forceful scrum from Ireland, with the front row bolstered by Ulster's own Ilse van Staden, won a penalty. Fitzpatrick was held up from a quick tap before replacement Spence plunged over for an unconverted try.
Ireland came again in the dying minutes, salvaging some pride with another try off a close-in penalty, Muldoon feeding Fitzpatrick to rumble over for her third try of WRWC 2017. Credit to hooker Lyons for a big carry in the build-up, while Tyrrell's well-struck conversion with the left boot completed the scoring.
TIME LINE: 8 minutes – Australia try: Sharni Williams – 0-5; conversion: missed by Ashleigh Hewson – 0-5; 14 mins – Ireland try: Ailis Egan – 5-5; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 7-5; 18 mins – Ireland try: Alison Miller – 12-5; conversion: missed by Nora Stapleton – 12-5; 29 mins – Australia try: Sarah Riordan – 12-10; conversion: Ashleigh Hewson – 12-12; 34 mins – Australia try: Hilisha Samoa – 12-19; conversion: Ashleigh Hewson – 12-19; Half-time – Ireland 12 Australia 19; 50 mins – Australia try: Millie Boyle – 12-24; conversion: Ashleigh Hewson – 12-26; 58 mins – Australia penalty: Ashleigh Hewson – 12-29; 64 mins – Australia try: Mahalia Murphy – 12-34; conversion: Ashleigh Hewson – 12-36; 74 mins – Ireland try: Sophie Spence – 17-36; conversion: missed by Hannah Tyrrell – 17-36; 79 mins – Australia yellow card: Millie Boyle; 80 mins – Ireland try: Paula Fitzpatrick – 22-36; conversion: Hannah Tyrrell – 24-36; Full-time – Ireland 24 Australia 36
Referee: Ian Tempest (England)