Thursday 14 December 2017

History girls dig deep for Slam glory

Italy 3 Ireland 6

David Kelly

David Kelly

It was not a thing of beauty, other than the glorious outcome.

As the heavens poured empathetic, joyous tears, this redoubtably brave Irish women's team discovered that it's not always about the way you get to the finishing line. Sometimes it's just about breaching the tape.

While the weather gods delivered rain, the fates couldn't deny this undeniably brave and committed collection of amateur sportswomen.

They will return to their workplaces this week with the broadest of smiles and a bounce in their step.

As a game of rugby, this will not propel the women's game into the realms of the stratospheric. But it was about more than just 80 minutes in a mud-spattered field somewhere north of Milan.

This was about the hundreds of hours spent in training sessions, operating in a vacuum far away from the live television cameras.

And it was for the times when the sport itself seemed an utterly whimsical flight of fancy, when triumph represented scoring a try a season, never mind winning a match.

Now they are queens of Europe. Grand Slam champions.

Next, the world awaits.

And, in a season where their male counterparts have been attended by calamity and despair, this represented a tall but truly unbelievable tale of good tidings from abroad.

This season, Ireland have thrilled in downing perennial giants such as England, but yesterday's occasion demanded that Philip Doyle's squad dig deep into previously unchartered mental and physical resources.


Trailing to an early penalty, Ireland belatedly realised it was better not to try to play rugby – risking spilling the pill – and 13th and 50th minute penalties edged the visitors ahead before a gripping final quarter.

When Italy made a singularly rare foray into the Irish '22' in the final throes, it seemed Ireland's resistance may have given way as the home side pummelled and probed relentlessly.

As the phases reached the twentysomething mark, somehow Joy Neville, the team's inspirational No 8, plucked the ball sturdily from a grappling Italian back-rower and secured the relieving penalty.

At that moment, the 500 or so Irish fans in this quaint Parabiagio club ground knew that the Grand Slam was theirs.

"It was a chance that I took," said Neville, whose day job involves the running of the game in LIT.

"I took the risk when it was offered, when I saw her coming around the corner and she was isolated.

"They were coming slowly but surely – but it was something we had been working on, hitting low and making sure teams can't gain ground.

"Another thing we had been working on was not conceding penalties, kept saying 'don't give away, away'.

"But I saw her coming around the corner towards the end and she was isolated. I just couldn't be more relieved when I saw the ref's hand in the air."

She wasn't the only one.

"I didn't think the weather was going to be as bad," noted Doyle. "We had to change our game plan and it was very hard. We played too much rugby in the first half.

"It was the conditions. If that was a dry surface we would have run that team off the park. No doubt, we would have cut them up. This is their third wet Six Nations game, so they're obviously used to it.

"I could see it all going wrong for us. Everything was falling into their hands but testament to our girls. It was an incredible turnover from Joy, she's a wizard at the breakdown. That back-row of ours is pretty special.

"We haven't played like that at all this season. I told them this was like a club game in Munster and we would have to dig really deep. We knew we had two or three ways to play. We didn't want to play that way but we had to.

"We hadn't practised playing like that but maybe it's something I'll have to think about in the future!"

Neville has heroines all around her, from the siege-gun boot of Niamh Briggs at full-back, through to Alison Miller's try-saving tackle in the 19th minute which could have dramatically altered the game.

And up front, Marie Louise Reilly's line-out thefts accompanied a thunderous back-row display, allowing the half-backs to steer the ship and allow Lynne Cantwell to display her dancing feet in midfield.

Call them the history girls. And they promise to have an even more substantial future.

Italy – M Furlan; M-D Veronese, M Sillari, P Zangirolami, M-G Cioffi (S Sofia 60); V Schiavon, S Barattin; M Ferrari, M Bettoni (D Ballarina 70), L Gai, C Molic, A Trevisan (A Ilaria 69), M Este (C Zublina 69), S Gaudino capt, F Severin.

Ireland – N Briggs; N Kavanagh, L Cantwell, G Davitt, A Miller; N Stapleton, L Muldoon; F Coghlan capt, G Bourke (S-L Kennedy 68), A Egan (L Day 68), S Spence, M-L Reilly, S Fleming (L Guest 58), C Molloy, J Neville.

Ref – C Daniels (England).

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