Grand Slam dream one step away from reality
IRELAND 15 FRANCE 10
IN ASHBOURNE WHAT opened with misty skies, ended with misty eyes as Ireland's women capped their coming- of-age party with a historic victory over France.
You didn't have to do much to put your head in the clouds on a foggy night, but Philip Doyle's team left in dreamland as they head to Milan needing just a win over Italy to claim a first Grand Slam.
Winning the Triple Crown has thrust this sport on to centre stage and President Michael D Higgins and Sports Minister Leo Varadkar were among the more than 3,000 in attendance, by far the biggest crowd ever to come and support the country's women's rugby team.
The occasion's importance to the players was clear from the off as the tears flowed during the anthems on an emotional night.
Ireland had only beaten France once before last night's game and they needed every ounce of effort to come out on top of a hugely physical encounter that left any newcomers in little doubt of the merits of the women's game.
Doyle was in no doubt about the win's significance, but the coach knows Italy won't roll over and hand Ireland a Slam.
"Italy beat France so how can they be a pushover? A Grand Slam – can you believe it?" he said.
"I knew France were going to come out heavy at us. I knew if we held them for the first 20, 25 and didn't let them away with it, we could come away with a victory. The physicality was immense but France are like that all the time.
"Joy Neville was absolutely immense off the back of the scrum and Claire Molloy, as usual, was excellent but they were all fantastic. I'm a bit buzzed." The visitors were still in the hunt for the championship and led at halftime, having started strongly when Sandrine Agricole served notice of her accuracy with an excellent opening penalty after four minutes.
Ireland hit back as a clever Lynne Cantwell pop-pass put Alison Miller in space down the left.
The winger stepped inside and set it up for Cantwell to work the ball to Neville, who drew her marker and passed to Niamh Briggs, who made the most of the chance to touch down.
STRONG She couldn't add the conversion, though, and France responded impressively as Gaelle Mignot crashed over after a strong maul, with Agricole delivering the touchline conversion to make it 10-5.
Both sides had chances to score before the break, but it stayed that way until after half-time when Molloy's fine break gave Ireland dangerous field position and they took full advantage, rumbling over for tighthead Ailis Egan to touch down.
Briggs made no mistake with the conversion to give her side a twopoint lead and, after struggling to go through their opponents, the hosts side started to pin them back in the corners with considerable success as the French back three failed to deal with Nora Stapleton's array of kicks.
Jade Le Pesq missed a drop-goal attempt on a rare foray into the Irish half, but led by the relentless Neville, the green line held firm.
Larissa Muldoon and Briggs relieved late pressure with excellent clearing kicks and Ireland were able to enter injury-time camped in the French half as a Briggs break forced a penalty, but struck the upright.
Try as they might, France simply couldn't break free of the Irish stranglehold and the Waterford native was handed another chance and nailed the kick.
Ashbourne erupted to salute a historic night.
Onwards to Milan.
IRELAND – N Briggs; A Baxter (N Kavanagh 65), L Cantwell, J Murphy (G Davitt 83), A Miller; N Stapleton, L Muldoon; F Coghlan (capt), G Bourke, A Egan; S Spence, ML Reilly; S Fleming (L Guest 82), C Molloy, J Neville.
FRANCE – C Ladagnous (J Le Pesq 65); J Billes (A Bailon 65), M Mayans, L Godiveau, E Guiglion; S Agricole, M-A Yahe (capt); H Ezanno (L Corson 73), G Mignot, E Portaries; S Rabier, De Nadai; C Tombe Diallo, L Grand (M Andre 63), S N'diaye.
REF – N Inwood (New Zealand).