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Irish rally to warrior leadership on Ciara Griffin’s swan song

Brendan Fanning


Battle to get women’s rugby up to speed, on and off the field, has a bit to go yet after physical ping pong

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Hannah O'Connor shows her upset after being red-carded. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Hannah O'Connor shows her upset after being red-carded. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Ireland's Ciara Griffin is lifted by her teammates at the RDS Arena. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Ireland's Ciara Griffin is lifted by her teammates at the RDS Arena. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

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Hannah O'Connor shows her upset after being red-carded. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

The gang of four missing from a dull and very damp RDS yesterday afternoon is a neat illustration of one of the issues undermining the women’s game here.

Stacey Flood, Beibhinn Parsons, Eve Higgins and Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe were all on Sevens duty. The emphasis next year will be on the short game, with the World Series leading to the World Cup. For the 15-a-side version to lose Parsons and Murphy Crowe is the equivalent of a race car deflating the tyres.

Whatever, this was a curtain closer: the last game for captain Ciara Griffin, retiring at just 27, and the last game in charge for coach Adam Griggs. Both have been bruised by the pitching and rolling on the voyage in this calendar year. It was an odd decision to retain Griggs when his successor, Greg McWilliams, was already close at hand.

So the script was for a bit of plain sailing to finish. Then, between the anthems and kick off, a wave of rain swept the stadium. By the time it moved off we had established that handling was going to be an issue.

This was doubly bad news for Japan: on a day that required putting the ball in behind your opponents they didn’t have anyone with that toolkit so it was phase after phase, often being buffeted by the bigger, stronger Irish girls. And their set-piece was woeful.

This is a recurring feature of the women’s game at least it is at the lineout. It is an enduring mystery why they don’t shift down to a size 4 ball rather than the size 5, which is the same as the men’s game. World Rugby say it was trialled but it didn’t win over enough support. Maybe it’s worth another look?

So much of rugby is launched from the lineout yet getting the ball out of the hooker’s hand and close to the target is a battle for many. This is compounded by the dearth of footballers with both range and accuracy. It’s common across the women’s game, and some of the efforts are so far off the mark it’s hard to watch.

Given the way rugby has developed on the men’s side of the fence — from schoolboy to seniors — to be without a competent kicking game is to be short a few high value cards in the deck. The Japanese were up against it here simply because of their stature, but Ireland’s lineout was equally awful. It makes planning strike plays like organising your house warming in the current Covid climate. Will it be a handful of folks from maybe three households, masked and socially distant, or will it be a decent crowd? Or will it be called off altogether?

In the case of Japan here they budgeted for a minimum attendance at their gig and tried to work their way around it. This would involve kicking penalties to touch knowing the only benefit would be in the yardage, for losing the ball at the lineout was a near certainty. But their work on the floor was first class, so their Irish counterparts couldn’t plan beyond two phases given the rate of turnover post tackle.

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You don’t want rugby where continuity is uninterrupted, where the attacking team stacks phase on top of phase, admired by a defence heavily policed by the referee. But you’d like a game where the skill levels were of a sufficient standard to cover a few of the basics. This was physical ping pong played by two teams utterly committed to the cause but unable to exert any level of control on the outcome.

Of course, it didn’t help the home team to be down to 14 players after 29 minutes. It was a straightforward decision to send off Hannah O’Connor for her high shot on Misaki Suzuki. She was pleading her innocence from the moment she made contact, but the only decision was the colour of the card.

This didn’t swing scrum dominance to the away team but it robbed Ireland of the chance to do more damage there. Initially, with all hands on deck, it looked like a potent weapon. The real pain however came in the extra workload for the Irish defence.

Despite their better ball skills and technique Japan could not get around the green wall. The players coming off the bench were a welcome sight to their overworked colleagues. Having managed to wrestle the game back from their visitors Ireland put in a massive effort not to let it slip away.

Fittingly it was Griffin who scored the two tries that changed the game. She is a warrior, and set the intensity bar high. That every one of her teammates responded so selflessly reflected the emotion of the occasion. Their celebrations covered over the cracks of low quality rugby. The battle to get women’s rugby up to speed, on and off the field, has a bit to go yet.


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