Amidst a myriad of Italian teenagers on campus looking to hone their English in the Anglophone heaven that is Dublin 4, there was an unprecedented level of excitement in Belfield this summer, as a very different kind of guest came to reside in our on-campus accommodation. The Roebuck and Ashfield residences played host to athletes from 12 different nations, as the world’s elite came to take part in the pool stage of 2017’s edition of the Women’s Rugby World Cup. And what a rollercoaster couple of weeks it turned out to be for all concerned. Whether it was the All Blacks performing the Haka in the middle of Ashfield square, or the constant confusion in the Merville reception at the number of languages being spoken in the office, there was never a dull moment.
From an Irish point of view of course, the tournament was ultimately a failure. Despite early promise in the form of a narrow victory over the Aussies and a ten point win over a dogged Japanese side, our girl’s hopes were eventually crushed, somewhat emphatically so, by a French side who outclassed our much-fancied hosts. Even the less-engaging 7th/8th place play-off against Wales failed to provide us with any kind of consolation, as a 27-17 loss left us with the ignominy of losing our automatic qualification place for the 2021 competition. That said, Ireland aside, the UCD-leg of the competition was an overwhelming success. The pool games were a complete sell-out, with a total attendance of 17,516, and with many more congregating in the fan zone behind the nearby student centre. These figures proved to be a vindication of the IRFU’s Impact Beyond initiative which aimed to establish a legacy of the competition that would raise the profile of women’s rugby in this country long after the conclusion of the tournament. Among the aims of the initiative was to have the trophy itself tour all 32 counties of Ireland over a five month period before eventually reaching Kingspan stadium in time for the final.
The scenes at The Belfield Bowl as Ireland took on Australia in their opening match.
On the field, the pool games presented us with some highlights to cherish. The aforementioned clash between Ireland and Australia proved to be one of the most thrilling match-ups of the pool, while other games allowed us to marvel at the class of some of the more dominant sides. Eventual champions New Zealand in particular, dispatched of their group stage opponents with admirable ruthlessness, notching up 213 points along the way. On the other end of the spectrum, highlights included Hong Kong’s delight at recording their first try of the competition in their game against Japan, and Spain’s hard-fought victory over a gallant Italian side. All things considered, the pool games exceeded expectations and served as a great opening to the tournament, before the four triumphant finalists headed north for the business end of the competition.
The skill levels of this summer’s Women’s Rugby World Cup were high and Ireland failed to adjust. Ireland had one trick and one trick only – they hoped to find soft shoulders to blast out of the way. The problem was that by the time the group phrase came around, there were no soft shoulders.
An essential part of ten-woman rugby is an accurate kicking game from the flyhalf and scrumhalf. Unfortunately, without the leadership of Niamh Briggs to call on, Ireland were without a half back partnership of the same level as their men’s counterparts, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. Time and again, Ireland failed to vary the point of the attack by dummies, decoy lines or adventurous passing. Their opponents, France, Australia and Wales did just that and they were found out.
In terms of the overall tournament, England and New Zealand showed just what this tournament was capable with a whopping eleven tries. There was brawn, yes, but there was also speed and lines of running that even the best defences would struggle to contain. Joy Neville deserves credit for how she used the advantage law well and allowed to string attacks together fluidly. The reason why New Zealand lost the final in the end probably has something to do with improving their fitness levels from previous tournaments. However, both teams threw off the shackles and shunned a set-piece dominated game in favour of attacking the wide channels from deep and putting ball into space in whatever way possible.
Despite the thrilling final, however, it has to be said that New Zealand were deserving winners. They tore the United States to pieces in the Semi-Final, who are a good side in the women’s rugby game. They also showed the character of champions to come back after a disastrous first quarter in which England ran riot.
In terms of the overall tournament, then, it shows us four things: First, it shows the increasing professionalism and quality of the women’s international. Second, Ireland has a lot of catching up to do. Thirdly, talk of the abandonment of women’s rugby union to sevens is premature. Fourthly, and finally, the tournament was a brilliant advert for the game and a boost to Ireland’s hopes of hosting the men’s tournament in six years’ time. Bring on the host announcement in November.
Chris Foley & Conor Lynott – Sports Editors