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Battered, bruised and beaten: Emotional and sobering end to a home World Cup which promised so much

The lowest ebb can so often be the turning of the tide and the hope is that Ireland learn from their mistakes at this World Cup.

Ryan Bailey reports from Kingspan Stadium 

THE SCRIPT HAD long been torn to shreds, but even still few could have foreseen Ireland’s World Cup campaign plunging to such a desperately low point. This was a sorry and sobering end to a fortnight which promised so much.

Ireland players dejected after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Or maybe we should have seen it coming. The warning signs had been there as far back as February and the giddy excitement of a home tournament only served to paper over the cracks and foster fanciful expectations. It all fell apart at an alarming rate, this afternoon’s defeat to Wales merely the final nail in the coffin.

Not that the swathes of green support inside Kingspan Stadium cared a jot. The ovation the players received at full time spoke volumes, even if the team were battered, bruised and beaten. Emotions ran high during the lap of honour, because for so many of the squad this was meant to be a glorious last stand. It was anything but, although that was through no lack of effort or fault of their own.

Inside, Tom Tierney, the head coach, had already confirmed his resignation, walking away from the job three years after taking the reins from Philip Doyle. He consistently spoke about leaving the set-up in a better place than when he first arrived in 2014 but this acrimonious end leaves a bitter taste.

Ireland are now likely to slide from fifth to eighth in the world rankings and a disastrous World Cup campaign means qualification for the next tournament isn’t automatically assured.

“I’m very, very proud of the job that I’ve done,” Tierney said afterwards.

“Obviously it hasn’t ended the way we’d like, but that’s sport and life and you’ve just got to deal with that.”

Sitting next to Tierney at the top table, the devastation was written all over Hannah Tyrrell’s face. As one of the new generation of players, there will be better days to come in green for the fullback but this was a crushing low for so many of her team-mates at the end of illustrious careers.

Marie Louise Reilly, who was unable to hold back the tears during the anthems and then at full time, was the first to officially confirm her retirement post-match, while Ruth O’Reilly had already hung up her boots during the week. More are expected to announce their future plans as the dust settles. They deserved better, and deserved to go out on a high note. Loyal servants who have sacrificed so much for their country.

O’Reilly’s damning interview in today’s Irish Times highlighted the underlying frictions within the camp and the systematic flaws which hampered preparations and completely undermined Tierney as the leader of his group. The revelations were always going to overshadow everything that happened on the pitch.

Sene Naoupu and Larissa Muldoon dejected after the game Sene Naoupu consoles Larissa Muldoon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In his post-match press conference, Tierney was asked about the issues raised by O’Reilly: ”I was very disappointed but that’s the nature of sport. Unfortunately, the timing of it was disappointing for the girls.”

Five minutes later, Lindsay Peat was asked the same question.

However, she stated that none of the players had seen or read the article because of the IRFU’s enforced media ban in and around matchday, contradicting Tierney’s line that it affected preparations for the seventh place playoff.

“The IRFU have us on a media ban from 12 before the game until 12 the day after the game so I actually haven’t seen any media at all,” the prop said.

“I have deleted Twitter off my phone. As I said, it goes across the board. The IRFU implement a media ban.”

Who to believe?

The post-mortem into what went so horribly wrong will be pretty grim but a major overhaul is needed and Tierney’s departure, it seems, was the first step. O’Reilly said he had lost the squad back in February after that Sevens debacle which saw the IRFU send three players to Las Vegas during the Six Nations.

On that occasion, miscommunication, or a complete lack of it, was the problem. Not only did Tierney and director of women’s rugby Anthony Eddy lose the trust of the players, but supporters and media began to question the union’s methods and vision for the women’s game. Six months later, Tierney’s position had become untenable and Eddy will have serious questions to answer too.

The reality is that Ireland have regressed in the three years since the last World Cup and while every other nation at this tournament are moving in one direction, the hosts are going in the other. Backwards.

In all five games, three of which ended in fairly comprehensive and humbling defeats, Ireland lacked any semblance of confidence and conviction. There was no shortage of effort, bravery and pure determination, but an inability to execute the basics — tackling, passing, catching — was the downfall.

Tierney also lamented the disparity of athleticism and power between Ireland and the world’s best teams, yet insisted on sticking to a collision-based gameplan. When you’ve to play five games in 17 days, adopting such an energy-sapping approach is beyond belief.

And what makes it even more frustrating is that we saw glimpses of how devastating Ireland can be when they get ball in hand, spread it wide and unleash the likes of Ali Miller and Jenny Murphy.

Tom Tierney speaks to his team after the game Tierney had been in charge for three years. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As the Welsh pulled clear in Belfast, Tierney threw on Sene Naoupu to replace Nora Stapleton at out-half. Suddenly, Ireland started playing as Naoupu injected some energy and ingenuity into proceedings. There was no more of this crash-bang-wallop, and it sparked a late Irish revival as Peat and Katie Fitzhenry crossed.

“Unfortunately a couple of key moments and key management decisions let us down and we lose again but we’ll get over it,” Tierney offered afterwards, before announcing it was his last game in charge.

It will take some time for the players, who have put their lives on hold for the best part of 12 months in anticipation of this tournament, to ‘get over’ the disappointment and heartache which comes with such a wretched campaign.

Larissa Muldoon was beyond inconsolable at full time as the physical and emotional toll of it all became too much. She wasn’t the only one. Peat, Marie Louise Reilly and Ciara Griffin were all visibly overcome as they thanked the crowd for their support and embraced their families. Defeated, deflated and, if truth be told, put out of their misery.

The hope is that the IRFU can use the learnings from this tournament to address the issues within the set up and ensure that the women’s game on this island heads back in the right direction.

This was an opportunity missed but if it puts the game in better stead going forward than this day, this tournament, will have created the legacy the union and organisers so desperately craved.

At this moment, when emotions are still high and the wounds still run deep, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel but what we do know is that a new coach will be installed to oversee a new era for Ireland’s women’s rugby.

The lowest ebb can so often be the turning of the tide. And things need to change. If this is the catalyst, so be it.

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As it happened: Ireland v Wales, Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017

Tom Tierney steps down as Ireland head coach following World Cup defeat to Wales

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