Thursday, May 30, 2024

No dead rubber as Ireland and Scotland once again battle for a World Cup spot

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Six Nations: Ireland vs Scotland, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday April 27, 2.30pm, live on RTÉ 2

There are apparent dead rubbers, and then there’s Ireland v Scotland. Never before has a last day clash between fifth and third in the Guinness Women’s Six Nations carried so much significance. With the big two having long since vanished over the horizon once more pending their latest Grand Slam shoot-out in Bordeaux, whoever is best of the rest will qualify automatically for the 2025 World Cup in England.

That is the prize for the team which finishes third. Scotland currently occupy that position on eight points, while Ireland go into the final round of games in fifth place, level on six points with Italy but behind them fractionally on points’ differential (-74 compared to -72).

Effectively therefore, Ireland need to beat Scotland and in the process match whatever result Italy manage in Cardiff against Wales, which kicks off at 12.15pm. Scott Bemand’s team will have the potential advantage of knowing the result from the Arms Park before kick-off, although a sizeable Italian win could make third place look more than a little out of reach. Alternatively, should Italy slip up in Cardiff or win very narrowly, that could leave the door ajar.

These two have, of course, been here before. In the final game of the European qualification tournament for the last World Cup, Ireland and Scotland met in Parma in September 2021. A place in the repechage was at stake for the winners whereas the losers would be eliminated.

With Eve Higgins in the sin bin, Scotland worked an overlap for fullback Chloe Tolle to score with the last play of the game and draw the sides level at 18-all, before replacement Sarah Low landed the match-winning conversion.

It was probably the most devastating defeat ever experienced by an Irish women’s team and the ripple effects lingered as the 2021 World Cup took place in New Zealand without them.

There was more than a whiff of cordite in the air two seasons ago when Ireland and Scotland met again on the final day of the 2022 Six Nations. With Ireland trailing Enya Breen struck in the last play with a strong finish and, after a deep breath or two, landed the match-winning conversion with the final kick in the final game of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign two seasons ago.

Admittedly, Scotland’s 36-10 win in the corresponding fixture a year ago completed Ireland’s wooden spoon and, save for Ireland’s stand-out performance against Wales, on a form line through their other three opponents, even without the suspended Chloe Rolle the visitors are entitled to start as favourites.

As that performance against Wales illustrated, an early Irish try or two could instil belief, and also banish some of last week’s demons. Over 7,000 tickets have been sold meaning that Ireland’s three home games at the RDS, Virgin Media Park and the Kingspan have each set new records.

Breen has been restored to the Irish midfield, while lock Sam Monaghan and fullback Méabh Deely are the other changes from the side which suffered that chastening 88-10 defeat in Twickenham a week ago.

“It had been a tough year,” said Breen when reflecting on her match-winning exploits two years ago. “So to be able to get one back at them after they had done the exact same to us not even 12 months beforehand, it did make it that little bit sweeter.”

As for qualifying for the World Cup, she admitted: “It would be massive. Our goal throughout the campaign has just been to qualify for the World Cup and so whatever way that happens if we can do it on Saturday with a win and getting third place that would be great but whatever way it comes that’s all that matters.”

All would not be lost if Ireland do not secure third place today, for the top six in the WXV in September/October who have not already qualified for next year’s World Cup will do so.

Even so, while the Irish women’s team may not have liked all the aspects of the journey, not least last week’s stopover in Twickenham, the destination point could yet be what they targeted from the outset.

Ireland: Méabh Deely; Katie Corrigan, Eve Higgins, Enya Breen, Béibhinn Parsons; Dannah O’Brien, Aoibheann Reilly; Linda Djougang, Neve Jones, Christy Haney; Dorothy Wall, Sam Monaghan (Co-Capt); Aoife Wafer, Edel McMahon (Co-Capt) Brittany Hogan.

Replacements: Clíodhna Moloney, Niamh O’Dowd, Sadhbh McGrath, Fiona Tuite, Shannon Ikahihifo, Molly Scuffil-McCabe, Aoife Dalton, Katie Heffernan.

Scotland: Meryl Smith; Coreen Grant, Emma Orr, Lisa Thomson, Francesca McGhie; Helen Nelson, Caity Mattinson; Molly Wright, Lana Skeldon, Christine Belisle; Emma Wassell, Louise McMillan; Rachel Malcolm (capt), Alex Stewart, Evie Gallagher.

Replacements: Elis Martin, Leah Bartlett, Elliann Clarke, Eva Donaldson, Rachel McLachlan, Mairi McDonald, Cieron Bell, Nicole Flynn.

Referee: Natarsha Ganley (NZR)

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