Billy Stickland/INPHO
Mná na hÉireann

6 stars who'll have to shine if Irish women are to claim title

The French are going for a Grand Slam but Ireland can retain their championship with an away win.

FOLLOWING AN UNPRECEDENTED Grand Slam success was never going to be easy, but even though a defeat to England has ruled out a clean sweep for the Irish Women’s rugby side in 2014, they are still be in contention for Six Nations Championship honours.

They face France in Stade du Hameau less than 24 hours before a similar crunch test for their male counterparts this weekend.

As a result of their 11-try rout of Scotland last Sunday, confidence will be sky high in the French camp, and they remain the only team on course for Grand Slam glory this time around.

Since their first meeting back in 1993, Ireland have only registered two wins and one draw from 20 encounters with the French, although they did emerge victorious on a scoreline of 15-10 in last season’s corresponding fixture at Ashbourne.

Indeed, in the last eight games between the teams, the winning margin has never been greater than ten points, but there is no escaping the fact that France are the in-form side in this year’s competition.

While Ireland also crossed the whitewash on 11 occasions against the Scots in an opening day demolition at the end of January, France have been watertight in defence, only conceding six points in their four games of date.

All of these points were attributed to England on Day One, and if Ireland are to have any joy against a team that has recorded three consecutive shut-outs, they will need to display an abundance of defensive steel and match France pound-for-pound in the physical stakes.

This is familiar territory for Philip Doyle’s charges, though, and at vital stages in this year’s championship, a number of players have stepped up to the mark. While it has been a strong squad effort from 1-23, there have nevertheless been a number of stand-out performers to date for Ireland, and big displays will certainly be needed from the following if they are to spoil the expected French party:

Niamh Briggs (UL Bohemians/Munster)

Niamh Briggs Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Waterford native was kept in reserve for the opening bow against Scotland (Jackie Shiels was given the nod at full-back), but the UL Bohs star returned for a tricky assignment with Wales, and the reliable place-kicker contributed nine points in a 14-6 triumph. With 26 points to her name this term, Briggs will need to be on-song once more against the French.

Alison Miller (Portlaoise/UCC/Connacht)

29-year-old Miller grabbed the spotlight with a stunning hat-trick in the 25-0 victory over England last year, and her scoring return of 10 tries from 18 international appearances makes the Portlaoise winger a dangerous prospect for any would-be opponents. She has maintained her form in 2014, and her predatory instincts yielded a brace of tries in the opening day demolition of Scotland, as well as a five-pointer in last week’s historic clash at the Aviva.

Lynne Cantwell (Richmond/Exile)

Lynne Cantwell Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Much like the man of the moment, Brian O’Driscoll, last Saturday was the last time that the record-breaking Cantwell will be seen on domestic ground by the loyal supporters of women’s rugby. Alongside dependable performers like Grace Davitt and Nora Stapleton, the 82-times capped Cantwell has been a superb anchor for the Irish rearguard, and her opening half try against the Azzurri set the tempo for another fine display.

Fiona Coghlan (UL Bohemians/Leinster)

Fiona Coghlan James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Being team captain can be a heavy burden for even the most experienced of campaigners, but Coghlan has been a model of professionalism since she stepped into the role. Her assured front-row play has provided Ireland with a strong platform during a potentially difficult campaign, and she will lead her country into battle on the occasion of her 80th international this Friday.

Sophie Spence (Old Belvedere/Leinster)

Following her transfer from Mowden Park Sharks to Old Belvedere, Sophie Spence now forms a dynamic second-row partnership with Marie-Louise Reilly at club, interprovincial and international levels. Since making her debut during the 2012 Six Nations, Spence has proven to be an adept finisher inside the opposition ‘22’, and her magnificent hat-trick against the Scots brought her overall points tally in an Irish shirt up to 25.

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