Sunday, 1 March 2009

Unpopular England make no friends in Dublin; There was fear and loathing on the pitch at the women's Six Nations tournament

Peter O'Reilly

WHAT was all that about the bonhomie of Six Nations weekends? There wasn't much of it at Templeville Road on Friday evening when the Ireland and England women's rugby teams got well and truly stuck into each other for 80 minutes and then studiously avoided each other afterwards.

There were tears on one side and smiles on the other - but no hugs or handshakes with the oppo. These girls really don't like each other.

England are generally unpopular, I was told. This probably has something to do with the fact that they came into this year's Six Nations looking for their fourth consecutive grand slam, and definitely has something to do with their cold professionalism. That's real professionalism, by the way - their coach, Gary Street, is full-time, and several of his players are semi-pro, thanks to the RFU ploughing [pounds sterling]2 million of national lottery funds into the women's game each year.

So when 'cocky' England were narrowly beaten 16-15 by Wales two weekends ago, there was general rejoicing amongst the other countries. Ireland sensed an opportunity too. Having won their first two games, against France and Italy, they now had home advantage against a team they had pushed close in a pre-Christmas friendly, also in Dublin.

The English girls looked like they meant business on Friday, though.

Their pre-match defence drills were frightening to behold. "Hit me Amy! Hit me Amy!" screeched one tackle-bag holder. And hit her Amy did. Hard. A whole lot of hitting and screeching going on, so there was.

The national anthems sounded more angelic, though you could see the visitors' patience beginning to wane as they stood through not one Irish anthem but two. This was the 12-inch extended version of Ireland's Call too, including the verse they leave out at the men's games. The Irish coach, Steve Hennessy, was really belting it out, standing shoulder to shoulder with his management staff.

Are a couple of the Irish girls wearing fake tan? England are more physically imposing, however, massive. They start impressively into the wind, off-loading expertly.

Their problem is every time they kick the ball, they kick it to Niamh Briggs, the Irish full-back, who has a beast of a right boot and a small, personal fan club in the crowd of around 500. "Well done, Briggsy," they roar every time she roots the ball 70 metres downfield.

Soon she kicks Ireland into a 3-0 lead and then converts a try by winger Amy Davis. There is bad language in the English huddle.

"We can't let the f***ing intensity drop," someone urges. They don't let it drop, either. Soon Emily Scarratt, their runaway horse of an outside centre, is scoring in the left corner and England are on the scoreboard.

But they are rattled by Ireland's ferocious defence and clever use of the wind. Francesca Matthews, England's blonde right winger, keeps dropping the ball and looks like she's rightly browned off with herself. "You can't just give in!" exhorts fly-half Katy McLean, from the Darlington Mowden Park Sharks. "Come on, Francesca!" Then number eight and captain Catherine Spencer is sin-binned just before the break and Briggsy knocks over the penalty. Ireland are leading 13-5 and looking good.

You can sense England going up a gear after the break, however.

Amy Turner comes on at scrum-half and makes a difference. They put more width on the ball and six minutes into the half, Matthews puts the finishing touches on an exquisite backline move. She is mobbed by her team-mates.

A dirge-like 'Fields of Athenry' breaks out on the terrace, as if Ireland's supporters know trouble is brewing. Midway through the half, Matthews scores again and England take the lead for the first time.

Ireland are game but there is only one possible result. By the end, they do well to hold England to a 29-13 victory, for points difference may play a part in this championship.

While the Irish players went to applaud their supporters, skipper Joy Neville had media interviews to attend to. "We played a wicked first half but we need to work on our defence," she said. "I don't know if we over-committed to the rucks but they kept catching us out wide..

They adapted their game-plan at the break and we didn't react. But we've learnt from that." Meanwhile, England were doing their post-match stretching routine in the middle of the pitch and sipping recovery drinks. Somehow you couldn't see the two sets of girls mingling for a sing-song and a pint later that evening.

Sunday Times (London, England) (March 1, 2009): p4

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