Emotions run high as early exit hits home
Jackie Crosbie's eyes filled with tears. Her daughter Katie Fitzhenry was just hours away from playing against France in the Women's Rugby World Cup. It was a must-win game, more than a big deal. But the tears weren't there because of the pressure or the pride.
The tears were there because of the journey that her family has been on. And seeing her daughter lining out for her country was a reminder of the road they travelled together.
"I reared Katie, on my own, explained Jackie. "Her dad died when she was two, I was 25. I only met my partner 12 years ago. So it was just me, Katie and her brother Alan. I got them into sport at a young age.
"I never wanted them to get injured so I tried to keep them away from contact sports. Katie never did what she was told, she always did what she wanted to do but luckily that worked out well for her.
"We live in Wexford and for a long time I didn't drive so we used to get the bus everywhere or walk, it wasn't easy. She only took up rugby in school. She went on to join a club, then she got on to the Leinster team and then Ireland at both 15s and sevens. I've been with her every step of the way. I'm so proud."
Carol Miller and Pauline Tyrrell, the mothers of Alison and Hannah, reached out to comfort her. The families of the players were gathered in the Bank of Ireland offices on the Stillorgan Road just down the road from UCD where the Rugby World Cup was being staged.
They all have a story to tell. Like how nine-year-old Alison Miller needed an extra push to get out of the car to run her first race or how Hannah Tyrrell loved to chase the ball around the room before she could even walk.
Nancy Chillingworth from the Rugby Players Association and Gavin Leech, the branch manager of the bank, organised the pre-match event for the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and partners. Anyone who was important to the Ireland team was welcome.
It was a way for them to connect, enjoy the occasion, talk about their children's achievements and help settle the nerves before the game. Food and drink were served and music played. Everyone was relaxed and enjoying the moment.
Myrtle Spence, Sophie's mother, sat with friends. Originally from Belfast, she moved to Tyneside in England in her early 20s. It's just her and Sophie and they always did everything together, including travelling back to Ireland regularly.
"Sophie started off playing netball when she was about nine, explained Myrtle. I worked full-time so any spare time I had I spent it with her. I used to go to all the training and matches I loved it and she loved it.
"Then she started playing rugby and I kept going to all the matches. When she told me she was going to play for Ireland I said I'll help you as much as I can. So when she was training over here that first year she used to go over on a Friday night and come back on a Sunday.
"I used to do all the washing, all the prep of the food for the week because they were on a special diet and had to watch what they were eating. I used to do all that then obviously I got a bit worried about what she would do when she moved to Dublin but she managed great."
The venue was filled with a mixture of hope and apprehension. France's impressive performances in the tournament were at the front of people's minds. They had shrugged off the challenge of Australia and Japan with ease and going on their Six Nations campaign, no one expected them to bring such flair.
Ireland, on the other hand, had made hard work of their opening games. Grinding out victories to set up a must-win final group game with France. Their performances were clearly not at the level needed if they wanted to reach their goal of at least a semi-final spot, so there was no denying that a big challenge lay ahead.
"I hope they win and I think they can, said Pauline Tyrrell. "But I've taught my kids to know that you can't always win because if they don't know that and something doesn't go their way, then they won't be able to cope."
"That's good advice," adds Carol Miller. "People often ask me 'am I terrified of Ali going out playing rugby?' The first thing I'm terrified about is that there isn't going to be a win and the second thing is if she is going to be OK. It should be the other way around," she said laughing.
The families then departed for UCD. When they arrived the Bowl was packed with high-spirited fans mostly decked out in green.
But their enthusiasm was quickly stifled as it became clear from very early on which French side turned up. They danced around the pitch showing speed and strength and after seven minutes Romain Menager had scored the opening try.
The crowd encouraged the home team but they were no match for the French. Caroline Ladagnous added two more tries and by half-time Ireland trailed 21-0.
In the second half the home side started stronger but they couldn't break down France or get any foothold in the game. As the clock ticked by, any hope of mounting a challenge evaporated. But they kept striving for a score and Cliodhna Moloney went over the line in the dying moments and rapturous cheers rang out.
Tom Tierney's team never stopped fighting and although the days of moral victories are behind this side, there was pride in the resilience shown.
The final whistle blew and France won 21-5. Tears streamed down the faces of the Ireland players as the consequences of the defeat hit home.
After the game Pauline Tyrrell stood in the rain waiting for Hannah to come out of the changing rooms. She was smiling even though Ireland lost. Just five weeks ago she had major surgery and to stand there and watch her daughter give her all for her country is a feat in itself.
"I went to the Australia game but I didn't think Hannah would be playing in the Japan game so I went to Wexford to rest, explained Pauline.
"I was watching her on the telly and at half-time I ran into the church in Our Lady's Island and lit all the candles and prayed that they would win.
"I love being here even though I should be at home in my sick bed. I'm a fighter and Hannah is a fighter. I'm so happy they got the try at the end. They never gave up."
The players slowly appeared from the dressing room, the pain of defeat etched clearly in their faces. Hugs were exchanged with loved ones and that pain eased momentarily.
Their hopes of winning the World Cup may have ended but the role of those who stand behind doesn't change. They have to be strong and ever present.
"No matter what I'll always be Katie's number-one fan," said Jackie Crosbie, clearly filled with love and pride.
And in that moment it was hard to think of anything more important than that.
Sunday Indo Sport