Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Six Nations: Ireland edge past Scotland to finish third and secure World Cup qualification

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Six Nations: Ireland 15 Scotland 12

As usual it was white knuckle ride between these two and with plenty at stake, but although it went to the wire it was hard to dispute the merit of an Irish win which was not without its flaws but was momentous in its own way.

Ireland hard targeted third place and qualification for the 2025 World Cup in England and so it came to pass as they cast aside a rain soaked, error-riddled first half with a sun-kissed and far more accurate second half display, when their composure shone through.

After a sharp finish by the 18-year-old Katie Corrigan, it was a particularly redemptive game for Clíodhna Moloney, the hooker back in from the cold, who drew the sides level for a second time, before Dannah O’Brien kicked the match-winning penalty.

The team’s standard bearers, Sam Monaghan, Aoife Wafer and Brittany Hogan had big games as Ireland dominated possession (54 per cent) and territory (62 per cent), and kept pounding at a strong Scottish defence, while Aoibheann Reilly put in a huge shift and punched well above her weight.

Wales’ dramatic 22-20 win over Italy in Cardiff with a late converted try had pushed the door for World Cup qualification wide ajar, leaving Ireland requiring a win of any hue to finish third. Effectively, this game became a straight shoot-out for World Cup qualification.

The rain, which had relented before kick-off, returned with a vengeance for the first quarter of the game but even this could not explain the litany of knock-ons and crooked throws which proliferated throughout a sub-standard first half.

However, with the rain finally holding, the second half was an altogether better affair, as both attacks – particularly Ireland’s – had a better shape and made the passes stick much better.

Scotland had been obliged to rejig their frontrow the night beforehand with the withdrawal of hooker Lana Skeldon. But their first scrum was rock solid, as was their first lineout after Aoibheann Reilly was pinged for being in front of the kicker.

When Linda Djougang was then penalised for side entry, Scotland went to the corner. Elis Martin, who had initially been picked on the bench before being promoted as the starting hooker, hit her target again and was at the sharp end of the catch-and-drive to claim the fifth minute try. Helen Nelson missed the conversion.

Scotland didn’t have another entry into the Irish 22 before half-time as the home side dominated possession and territory but for all their huffing and puffing, save for Neve Jones being held up over the line from one lineout drive, never looked liked scoring.

The visitors also lost scrumhalf Caity Mattinson, who was taken off on a stretcher after a lengthy stoppage. But, while Djougang made some inroads, especially when used further out than the first carrier, but generally the Scottish defence was very comfortable – even if they appeared to be in front of the hindmost foot on occasion.

With the excellent number number Evie Gallagher and inside centre Lisa Thomson leading the charge, Scotland’s line speed enabled them to defend in Irish faces, as when Thomson picked off a pass by Dorothy Wall. They also lined up Ireland’s primary ball carrier Sam Monaghan effectively, as when Gallagher led a double hit on the Irish lock.

Ireland’s back play was also fairly predictable, with insufficient options off 10, and their handling was error-strewn in the first half especially. Tellingly, Beibhinn Parsons had more impact with individualistic carries than whenever Ireland worked the ball to her.

True to form, Ireland didn’t overplay in the middle third of the pitch, never mind deep in their own territory, but much of Dannah O’Brien’s kicking was read fairly easily by the Scottish backfield players.

But after Djougang injected life into proceedings with first a charge down and then a big carry, O’Brien’s long kick down the middle found grass and a good chase by Parsons forced Scottish fullback Meryl Smith to slice her touchfinder.

From there, on five occasions Ireland opted to kick for the corner as the Scots somehow avoided a yellow card. Four times Neve Jones hit her target and four times the Irish maul rumbled forward, but when Jones lunged for the line the hooker was held up by Thomson.

When they went to the corner for a fifth time with the last play of the half, Louise McMillan beat Monaghan to Jones’ throw.

But Ireland were a team transformed immediately after the resumption. After another big carry by Djougang, O’Brien again found grass with a well-weighted crosskick which Thomson could not deal with, and when Ireland went left and back right again Brittany Hogan made a super carry, fending one defender and freeing Katie Corrigan for a fine finish in the corner.

Even then Scotland responded ominously well. There was a batter shape and more options to their attack as first Thomson extracted every metre out of a long penalty up the line, then put the Scots over the gain line before, several phases later, taking a lovely short line onto Smith’s short flat pass to score.

Helen Nelson added the conversion but Ireland didn’t blink an eye. Rather, they rolled up their sleeves and now, the first half knock-ons consigned to history, kept pounding away at the Scottish defence.

The sight of Reilly driving back Emma Wassell was a statement of intent, and ditto Wafer ripping the ball from the other Scottish lock Louise McMillan.

Moloney’s first two throws were picked off, taking Ireland’s tally of lost lineouts to seven, but when Ireland went to the corner nearing the hour, she found McMahon at the front and a well-controlled drive ended with the replacement hooker clearly grounding the ball.

O’Brien drew the sides level with the conversion and, helpfully, Scotland’s lineout also malfunctioned, notably when Molony latched onto an overthrow and charged deep into Scottish territory. As the Irish kept pounding away, the Scots hung on through their tenacity in the tackle and strength over the ball, but they were also ill-disciplined.

After a dummy and clean break by Wafer, Ireland hammered away again and when Emma Orr was pinged for not rolling, O’Brien calmly landed the penalty to nudge Ireland in front for the first time in the 74th minute.

Curiously, Scotland opted for the corner from 25 metres out rather than the kickable penalty which would have levelled the scores. Ireland still needed another defensive set, culminating in Enya Breen winning a turnover in contact and, finally, Monaghan applied the pressure before Niamh O’Dowd latched onto the loose ball for the game’s final turnover.

Ireland are going to the World Cup.

Scoring sequence: 5 mins Martin try 0-5; (half-time 0-5); 41 mins Corrigan try 5-5; 50 mins Thomson try, Nelson con 5-12; 59 mins Moloney try, O’Brien con 12-12; 74 mins O’Brien pen 15-12.

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: Niamh O’Dowd for Haney (half-time), Clíodhna Moloney for Jones (46 mins), Shannon Ikahihifo for McMahon (72 mins),

Not used: Sadhbh McGrath, Fiona Tuite, Molly Scuffil-McCabe, Aoife Dalton, Katie Heffernan.

Yellow card: Parsons (80 mins).

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

Replacements: Mairi McDonald for Mattinson (12 mins), Eva Donaldson for McMillan, Rachel McLachlan for Stewart (both 59 mins), Molly Wright for Martin, Lisa Cockburn for Bartlett (both 63 mins).

Not used: Elliann Clarke, Cieron Bell, Nicole Flynn.

Referee: Natarsha Ganley (NZR)

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