The Ireland Women suffered their first competitive defeat to Wales since 2011 as a late surge was not enough to turn today’s 7th-8th place play-off in their favour. Tom Tierney’s side ended the home World Cup campaign in eighth place and without automatic qualification for WRWC 2021.
Instead it was Wales who triumphed 27-17 at Kingspan Stadium, securing a top-seven finish and a World Cup berth for four years' time. Try-scoring number 8 Sioned Harries was in inspirational form, leading the Welsh charge either side of half-time as they strung together three tries and 22 points without reply. Unconverted scores from Lindsay Peat and Katie Fitzhenry raised Irish hopes, but replacement Shona Powell-Hughes' 69th-minute try effectively settled the issue.
Paula Fitzpatrick's fourth try of the tournament had given Ireland the early advantage in an evenly-contested first half, but Wales had the better of the second quarter – particularly in terms of territory – and 22-year-old out-half Robyn Wilkins swept over a penalty and converted prop Caryl Thomas' try in a profitable five-minute spell.
Trailing 10-7 at half-time, Ireland had to cope with game-ending injuries to Ailis Egan, Ciara Cooney and Ciara Griffin. With WRWC 2017 captain Claire Molloy and Jenny Murphy already sidelined due to concussion, the injury-hit hosts could not keep Wales at bay as Harries and skipper Carys Phillips both finished off power plays from the forwards to make it 22-7.
Fitzpatrick, who led Ireland on the day, saw yellow for repeated infringements near her own try-line, and although Ireland had the better of the closing stages with their bench proving influential, it finished four tries-to-three to Rowland Phillips' well-drilled outfit, who borrowed from Australia's game-plan to win the collisions and wear down the Irish defence at key times.
On the occasion of her 50th cap, out-half Nora Stapleton had the honour of leading Ireland out of the tunnel, the emotion of the day obvious as Molloy tearfully sung 'Ireland's Call' from the stands and lynchpin lock Marie Louise Reilly – for the final time in her long and stellar international career – did likewise in the team line-up.
The girls in green enjoyed a strong start with their lineout maul central to it. Alison Miller and Eimear Considine also threatened out wide, but knock-ons from Fitzhenry and Cliodhna Moloney in the 22 let the Welsh defence off the hook before a barnstorming run from Miller ignited the Irish attack again.
The Ireland forwards, marshalled really well by Nicole Cronin again, took over with Peat and Moloney both making good yardage. They kept the pressure on Wales, and although Stapleton's cross-field kick bounced too awkwardly for the waiting Miller, a penalty advantage allowed Ireland to go for the corner and the resulting maul saw Fitzpatrick scramble over to the right of the posts. The conversion was neatly added by Stapleton.
Fitzpatrick and Egan had to show their defensive nous to thwart a dangerous Welsh maul that wormed its way from the 22-metre line right up towards the Irish whitewash. It was a purple patch for Phillips' charges deep in the Irish 22, but a terrific lineout steal from Reilly broke up their momentum.
Powerful running from Aon player-of-the-match Harries and Siwan Lillicrap kept Wales in the right areas of the pitch, yet the ever-influential Fitzpatrick once more put her body on the line to hold up a Welsh maul that was gunning for the right corner.
Tighthead Egan unfortunately had to come off with a lower back injury, and Wales eventually turned their pressure into points thanks to a central 26th-minute penalty from Wilkins. Good ball retention from Wales, combined with Irish indiscipline at the breakdown, invited the red shirts forward, and from a close-in lineout, a well-executed maul paid dividends as prop Thomas was able to plunge over. Wilkins landed a classy conversion to give her side a 10-7 buffer.
An overthrown lineout by Moloney sparked another lively set of phases from Wales who were now regularly getting over the gain-line. Apart from an excellent clearance by Cronin, Wales were also out-kicking Ireland with Wilkins growing in influence courtesy of a couple of probing kicks towards the left wing. The hosts did come with a late surge before the break, however the lineout malfunctioned again and a gilt-edged chance was lost.
Ireland's handling errors rose to seven as Wales seized the initiative in the opening minutes of the second period. The abrasive Lillicrap was almost everywhere as the Welsh went through 12 phases and tighthead Amy Evans was stopped just inches short of the whitewash.
Alisha Butchers was then held up by Ciara Griffin, but Ireland conceded a scrum penalty in the next phase, a quick tap allowing Harries to reach over from close range. The try was converted by Wilkins for a 17-7 scoreline.
It got even worse for Ireland as Fitzpatrick was sin-binned by referee Claire Hodnett for repeated infringements close to the Irish posts, including not retreating the required distance for the quickly-taken penalty. Frustratingly, the individual errors kept coming from Ireland, Considine and replacement Sophie Spence giving away penalties and poor maul defence allowing hooker Phillips a relatively simple finish wide on the left for 22-7.
Tom Tierney looked to his bench with Larissa Muldoon, Sene Naoupu, Leah Lyons and Ashleigh Baxter all coming on ahead of the final quarter. The ups and downs continued for Ireland, Griffin drawing a high tackle from Welsh prop Evans for the game's second yellow card on the hour mark. Fitzpatrick was then held up past the Welsh try-line before loosehead Peat was successfully driven over from a strong 64th-minute maul.
Tyrrell missed the conversion on the near side and Spence knocked on from the restart, handing possession straight back to Wales who quickly worked their way into scoring range. Peat was caught out defensively as the pillar when Powell-Hughes wrestled her way over for an unconverted try, the powerful replacement starting and finishing a 13-phase attack full of strong and incisive carrying.
Reilly ripped the ball back in a Welsh maul, the turnover sparking some of Ireland's best play of the past two-and-a-half weeks. The forwards hammered away close to the posts before the quick-tapping Muldoon exploited the space wide on the left, good hands from Naoupu and Jeamie Deacon seeing the latter's centre partner Fitzhenry go over in the corner.
Tyrrell missed the difficult conversion at 27-17 and it was the full-back's forward pass which ruled out a 78th-minute score for Considine on the opposite wing. Referee Hodnett and TMO David Grashoff denied the Clare woman her moment of glory, and there was further disappointment when Spence knocked on after Muldoon had broken off the back of a scrum.
It was a case of too little, too late for Ireland who ended the tournament in eighth place – well below the top-four heroics of the 2014 squad and the current crop's own pre-WRWC 2017 ranking of fifth. Tierney confirmed afterwards that he is stepping down as Ireland head coach after three years in charge.
TIME LINE: 12 minutes – Ireland try: Paula Fitzpatrick – 5-0; conversion: Nora Stapleton – 7-0; 26 mins – Wales penalty: Robyn Wilkins – 7-3; 30 mins – Wales try: Caryl Thomas – 7-8; conversion: Robyn Wilkins – 7-10; Half-time – Ireland 7 Wales 10; 49 mins – Wales try: Sioned Harries – 7-15; conversion: Robyn Wilkins – 7-17; 49 mins – Ireland yellow card: Paula Fitzpatrick; 53 mins – Wales try: Carys Phillips – 7-22; conversion: missed by Robyn Wilkins – 7-22; 61 mins – Wales yellow card: Amy Evans; 64 mins – Ireland try: Lindsay Peat – 12-22; conversion: missed by Hannah Tyrrell – 12-22; 69 mins – Wales try: Shona Powell-Hughes – 12-27; conversion: missed by Robyn Wilkins – 12-27; 75 mins – Ireland try: Katie Fitzhenry – 17-27; conversion: missed by Hannah Tyrrell – 17-27; Full-time – Ireland 17 Wales 27
Referee: Claire Hodnett (England)