DAVID BARNES @ Donnybrook
IT doesn’t get any easier because it happens so often. For the fourth time this weekend, a brave Scotland side went toe-to-toe with more experienced opposition to put themselves in a great position to snatch a famous win, only to be undone by lapses at key moments which were ruthlessly punished by their Irish rivals.
International rugby is all about fine margins, and 13 unanswered points conceded during the opening quarter of an hour when the Scots were caught cold, plus a devastating length-of-the-park interception try towards the end, left the team in blue with a mountain to climb.
They had the upper hand at set-piece, played most of the rugby, dominated possession and territory for practically all of the second half and really deserved to take more from this highly entertaining contest, but the scoreboard is the only measure which really matters in the final reckoning and that’s where they came up short – although they will take some consolation from a losing bonus point.
“We knew Ireland were going to have 20 minutes where they would throw their full repertoire at us, and that’s exactly what happened, but we weren’t meant to give away so many points during that period,” said head coach Philip Doyle. “But I’m very proud of the girls and the way we got ourselves back in that game.
“It just shows the great character of this team. To put all that effort in and then have that disastrous outcome [with he breakaway try], and then go back again for more … it doesn’t feel good today, but they’ll bank that and down the road they will be better for it. They really are going to come good in time.
“It is all about the little step going forward towards [the World Cup qualifiers] in September, and today was another one of those little steps.”
Ireland took a fourth minute lead through the boot of stand-off Ellen Murphy, after a Scottish an offside, but they will have been slightly frustrated that it was only three rather than five or seven points because full-back Lauren Delany had failed to capitalise on a clear overlap on the right a few seconds earlier.
Home hooker Cliodhna Moloney wasn’t so wasteful on ten minutes, when she motored down the same touchline and over the chalk to make it 8-0, and they were bang on the money again when after several phases of well-controlled build-up play outside centre Sene Naoupu showed good pace to get outside her marker for try number three on the 15 minute mark.
It is wasn’t quite all one-way traffic, but the home team had definitely found it easier to make ground every time they got ball in hand during this first quarter, while the visitors found themselves suffocated against an aggressive push defence.
Where the Scots did start getting some joy was with their line-out drive. Twice in quick succession they marched Ireland 15 yards backwards before forcing a penalty, but on the third occasion – just five yards from the try-line – their timing was off and Ireland’s front jumper managed to get up to disrupt the throw.
Scotland were also beginning to get the upper hand in the scrum, shoving Ireland off the ball to earn a penalty on halfway, and with No 8 Jade Konkel beginning to make some headway with her powerful carries the momentum of the game was clearly shifting as we passed the half hour.
Finally, in injury time of the first half, the Scots got off the mark when several excellent phases of build-up play culminated in Lisa Thomson darting under the posts, which set up an easy conversion for Helen Nelson. It was game-on.
Scotland continued to build the tempo at the start of the second half with centre Hannah Smith, captain/flanker Rachel Malcolm and second-row Rachel Bonar all piercing the Irish defensive line during the third quarter, while an excellent cut-out pass from Thomson released Megan Gaffney on the left.
As the game approached the hour mark, a weaving run from deep by full-back Chloe Rollie had Ireland in disarray, then Konkel burrowed over after a series of punishing rucks on the Irish line but couldn’t get the ball down … then disaster struck.
Scotland had shown admirable patience when building pressure deep in Irish territory, and you felt it was only a matter of time before they would reap the benefit, but when replacement stand-off Sarah Law sensed an opportunity on the right, she underestimated Irish winger Beibhinn Parsons, who intercepted and ran the full length to deliver the killer blow with a score which was almost a carbon copy of the one scored by Rollie which secured a famous victory for Scotland at this same venue two years ago.
To their enormous credit, the Scots did not let the grievous set-back dent their determination and they were soon back hammering at the door, thanks to yet another powerful midfield surge from Thomson.
Ireland lost replacement prop Leah Lyons to the sin-bin for a high tackle, and Scotland finally got their richly deserved reward when Emma Wassell stretched over with just under five-minutes left on the clock, and hooker Lana Skeldon sent home the touchline conversion to make it a four-point game.
Scotland continued to dominate, but they couldn’t find a way through – and when Ireland managed to snaffle possession on the deck to derail Scotland’s last tilt of glory deep into injury time it felt like déjà vu to those who had watched the men’s team’s agonising defeat a few miles down the road at the Aviva Stadium less than 24 hours earlier.
The brave Scots had to make do with a losing bonus point, which did not reflect their contribution to this absorbing encounter.
Ireland: L Delany; A Doyle, S Naoupu, M Claffey, B Parsons; E Murphy (C Keohane 68), K Dane (N Cronin 55); L Peat (L Feely 57), C Moloney (V Dabanovich-O’Mahony 27), L Djougang (L Lyons 54), A McDermott, N Fryday C Griffin (D Wall 40), E McMahon (L Djougang 74), A Caplice.
Scotland: Rollie; R Lloyd, H Smith, L Thomson, M Gaffney; H Nelson (S Law 50), M McDonald; L Bartlett (L Cockburn 61), L Skeldon, M Forsyth, E Wassell, S Bonar, R Malcolm (L McMillan 68), R McLachlan (S Cattigan 55), J Konkel (M Wright 75).
Referee: Aurélie Groizeleau (France)
Ireland: Tries: Moloney, Naoupu, Parsons; Pen: Murphy.
Scotland: Tries: Thomson, Wassell; Con: Nelson, Skeldon.
Scoring sequence (Ireland first): 3-0; 8-0; 13-0; 13-5; 13-7 (h-t) 18-7; 18-12; 18-14.
Yellow cards –