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'I just burst into tears': Remembering the Ireland team that won the Grand Slam and toppled New Zealand

In the final part of our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we relive a historic 18 months for the national women’s side with players who were there.

‘TRAILBLAZERS’ IS OUR new series, telling the unheard stories of the women who fought for recognition in Irish rugby, and those who brought the sport to where it is today.

With Guinness – a proud sponsor of the Women’s Six Nations – The42 is paying tribute to their achievements, shining a light on the challenges they overcame, and looking ahead to what’s next for women’s rugby in Ireland.

In the final instalment, Daire Walsh looks back at a golden period for the Ireland team.

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After struggling for so long to gain recognition for their efforts, the 2013 and 2014 seasons saw the Ireland women’s rugby team stepping out of the shadows and firmly into the spotlight.

It may not have seemed apparent at the time, but the Six Nations opener against Wales in Port Talbot on 3 February, 2013 was the beginning of the most successful 18 months in the Ireland team’s history.

An unbeaten march in that tournament brought them a first-ever Grand Slam title, followed by a fourth-place ranking at the following year’s World Cup in France – where they overcame defending champions New Zealand in the pool stages.

Up until that time, Ireland had never finished higher than third in the Six Nations and seventh in the World Cup. New Zealand, on the other hand, were seeking to become champions of the global tournament for a fifth time in succession and hadn’t lost a World Cup game in all of 23 years.

As well as giving the Irish women’s team huge international recognition, the wins led to a shift in perception on home soil too.

Up until this point, media coverage of the team had been largely non-existent. That started to change in the wake of their Grand Slam triumph with an appearance on The Late Late Show being followed by a reception on All-Ireland ladies football final day at Croke Park in September 2013.

Laying the foundations for victory

Team captain for the 2013 Six Nations, Fiona Coghlan’s debut in 2003 had come a full decade after Ireland played their first international.

Much progress had been made in the 20 years since that groundbreaking game against Scotland, with the merger between the IWRFU and the IRFU in 2008 leaving them in a much better place to prepare for their Grand Slam charge.

“Without doubt, it [the merger] was a game changer. We didn’t have red eye flights so much anymore!” Coghlan recalls. “We stayed in hotels as opposed to on my parents’ floor. A strength and conditioner was assigned to the team, as well as a nutritionist.”

Towering second-row Marie Louise Reilly was a more recent addition to the squad, having made her Ireland bow in 2010. Philip ‘Goose’ Doyle returned for a second spell as international head coach in the same year and Reilly feels he set the tone for what was to follow in 2013.

“Coming into the tournament, there was definitely a consensus amongst the management team that their language was going to be very positive,” Reilly says. 

“It wasn’t going to be a fearful kind of environment, where you were afraid of making mistakes. It was very ‘try to give it a go’. I think that really set the foundation for what happened that year.” 

marie-louise-reilly-wins-the-line-out-ball Ireland's Marie Louise Reilly wins the lineout ball.

Ireland almost came unstuck in their first game of the championship, but with the team trailing by three points against Wales with 74 minutes gone, hooker Gillian Bourke scored a late try to propel her side towards a 12-10 triumph.

Even if the nature of this victory grew confidence within the squad – it was their first away win over the Welsh since 2005 – no one could have quite predicted what was to unfold against England in Ashbourne RFC just six days later.

Ireland had suffered severely at the hands of their cross-channel rivals down through the years, losing to the Red Roses on 17 consecutive occasions and failing to register a single point in seven of those meetings. The previous year’s 23-6 defeat in Surrey was regarded as a commendable effort, but the time for morale victories was now at an end.

‘A special day’

By the midway point, the magnificent Alison Miller had already completed a hat-trick of tries. Full-back Niamh Briggs also crossed over five minutes after the restart to move Ireland into an astonishing 25-0 lead.

The score remained the same until the final whistle was blown as Ireland executed a complete shut-out on the pre-tournament favourites.

“I remember Goose said after the game, one of the proudest things from that match was not scoring 25 on them, but keeping them to zero,” Reilly explains.

Everyone was like ‘no, not today. You’re not getting in, you’re not crossing the whitewash’. It was a really special day up there in Ashbourne.”

Two weeks later, Ireland had a 30-3 win at the expense of Scotland in Midlothian. While there is no trophy on offer in the women’s game for completing the Triple Crown, it was a notable feat nonetheless and – in any event – it wasn’t long before silverware came their way.

Trailing 10-5 adrift at half-time to France on March 8 (also International Women’s Day), Ireland amassed 10 unanswered second period points amidst the Ashbourne fog to give themselves a fourth successive seasonal win.

With every other team losing at least two games by the end of that weekend, Ireland were officially anointed Six Nations champions for the very first time.

As extraordinary and unprecedented as this was, it couldn’t shift the focus of the Ireland players. They were now just 80 minutes away from adding a Grand Slam to their growing list of accolades and weren’t prepared to let a priceless opportunity go to waste.

Unfortunately, monsoon-like weather in Milan drastically affected their St Patrick’s Day showdown with Italy – the first Ireland women’s game to be shown live on RTÉ.

Still, the visiting side found a way, with a brace of Briggs penalties sealing a 6-3 success.

“Elation,” Briggs described the emotion she felt that day in an RTÉ documentary. “I just completely burst into tears. I ran straight over to where my dad and my family were. 

“When I think about it, it makes the hairs on my neck stand up because they are memories that I never ever want to forget.”

In her 11th season as an international, Coghlan finally got the chance to raise the Six Nations trophy aloft.

phillip-doyle-and-fiona-coghlan-celebrate Captain Fiona Coghlan and head coach Philip Doyle with the trophy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

She was joined on the battlefield that day by Lynne Cantwell and Joy Neville, with whom she had soldiered alongside for the majority of her Ireland career. Now a trailblazing international rugby referee, this was to be the then 29-year-old Neville’s final game for her country.

“We didn’t realise it at the time [that Neville was retiring] because she hadn’t said it to anyone,” Coghlan says. “She was supposed to stay until 2014 for the World Cup.

“It was really special for me to have Lynne and Joy there. That was important to me, because the three of us started together back in the early 2000s and had soldiered through.”

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Of the many heroes that stood tall in Milan, special mention should go to openside flanker Claire Molloy. The one remaining link in the current set-up to the Grand Slam squad, the Galwegian wrestled with a bout of hypothermia to help Ireland reach the promised land.

On the celebrations, Reilly adds: “The party afterwards was brilliant. There was a poor little pub in Parabiago [the Milan town in where the game was held] that didn’t expect a crowd coming in.

“By the time a few of the players got dried and heated up after the match, the drinks were flowing and everyone was in great form.”

Making history at the World Cup

If England were the benchmark for the Six Nations, then the same was true of New Zealand when it came to the World Cup in 2014.

The Black Ferns had inflicted a 79-5 trashing upon Kazakhstan and were expected to all but confirm their progression to the semi-finals with another win over the Irish in Marcoussis. For their part, Ireland began the pool stages with a solid win over the United States.

It was all going according to plan for the southern hemisphere giants when they built up an eight-point cushion inside the opening 26 minutes. Then Ireland came roaring into the contest and, having levelled matters, Briggs added her only penalty of the day on 70 minutes to consign the hotly-tipped New Zealand to a 17-14 defeat.

We were fitter than them and we knew at 60 minutes if we were in the game, that we’d have the fitness to push through,” explains Coghlan.

Thanks to a bonus point triumph against Kazakhstan in their final pool game with a much-altered selection, Ireland qualified for the penultimate knockout round and were guaranteed a top-four finish. The tournament wasn’t over yet, but it was a win to be celebrated at all costs:

“We enjoyed that moment against New Zealand,” Reilly says. “There was a bit of craic after. Peter Bracken, our scrum coach, said if we won the match he’d get a Mohawk.

“Marian Earls [Ireland's fitness coach] shaved his head and then Marian said she’d get a half tan at one side of her body. I think the left side of her body got tanned and the right was pasty white!”

ashleigh-baxter-nora-stapleton-and-niamh-briggs-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Ireland's Ashleigh Baxter, Nora Stapleton and Niamh Briggs celebrate at the final whistle of the win over New Zealand. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It seemed scarcely believable 18 months earlier, but Ireland were now within sight of a spot in the World Cup final. This was as close as they came to realising that dream, however, as eventual champions England convincingly had the measure of them in their last-four duel in Paris (40-7).

Ireland rounded off their history-making campaign with a 25-18 reversal to host nation France in a third place play-off.

Calling it a day

Following the World Cup, both Coghlan and Cantwell announced their international retirements, while Doyle brought the curtain down on his second spell as head coach.

“We never really spoke about it, but I suppose the girls probably knew that myself and Lynne were retiring and Goose was stepping away,” Coghlan admits.

Reilly, on the other hand, continued to line out for her country and added a second Six Nations title to her honours list in 2015. In the aftermath of a disappointing eight-place finish at the home World Cup in 2017, she was one of a host of stalwarts to call time on their Ireland careers.

These heroic women reached unprecedented heights in a green shirt, but the IRFU has work to do if a future Irish team is to ever emulate that success.

Obviously we have a long way to go in terms of structures around the game,” Coghlan accepts.

“You’re competing against professional teams. You’re competing against teams that have a bigger player base. However, I do think Ireland have improved and are in a healthier position than they have been in the last number of years.”

Read the fourth part of the Trailblazers series here  

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