AS Greig Laidlaw was saying last week, the next step in Scotland’s evolution is to claim a significant away victory. The scrum-half was talking about his own team, of course, but while the men fell short of their objective in the Aviva on Saturday, the women made no mistake this afternoon, claiming their first win on the road in the Six Nations since 2006.
After winning twice at home in last year’s Championship, Shade Munro’s team had lost all three of their games so far in this campaign, and while the losses at Scotstoun to France and England were understandable, the one-point defeat by Wales in Colwyn Bay was less excusable. Had they begun that match less tentatively, they would surely have won, so they travelled to Dublin with their strength of character still subject to scrutiny.
Not any more, because while Chloe Rollie’s spectacular second-half score was the unquestioned highlight of the game, the key to victory was the defiance shown by the whole team when Ireland were in the ascendancy. “We knew we could do it,” the full-back said. “We had belief from the first second.
“Twelve years is definitely a long time. To finally get an away win, and against Ireland as well, is a great achievement.
“It’s a huge step. I think any game that we perform well in, any game that we win, is a step forward, but to get the away win as well is a huge achievement for us. It just shows that we can do it.”
Ireland may not be the force they were when they won the title and the Triple Crown three years ago, but they went into this game having won their two previous matches at Donnybrook and lost only to leaders France in Toulouse. Their pack, more powerful as a unit if not more dynamic, was dominant for most of the game, but crucially could not make their pressure tell when it mattered most.
Just as crucially, Scotland began really brightly, and took a seventh-minute lead through a Helen Nelson penalty after Ireland had strayed offside. Their continued high tempo had the home team on the back foot for most of the first quarter, but Nelson was off target with another penalty at the midway point of the half. A 6-0 lead at that point would have been no more than Scotland merited, but as well as that missed chance some good possession was slowed down or lost by loose passing.
Ireland came into the game more as half-time approached, but they too failed to capitalise on decent possession, in part due to their own inaccuracy, in part because of resolute Scottish defence. Their shortcomings were most glaring in the last minute before the break, when, with pressure mounting on the Scots line, Niamh Briggs lost the ball forward with just metres to go.
Inspired half-time changes
Munro made a couple of changes at half-time, replacing scrum-half Sarah Law and flanker Sarah Bonar, both of whom had been carrying injuries, with Jenny Maxwell and Louise McMillan. The change of personnel helped Scotland get the second half off to a flying start, and within three minutes Nelson extended their lead with the first try of the game.
Swift distribution at the breakdown helped take the attack close, but the score itself was down to the centre’s persistence, as, in a move reminiscent of Huw Jones’s second try against England, she battled her way over the line with two defenders clinging on to her. Nelson’s attempt to convert her own score fell short, but it was a rousing start to the half by Scotland nonetheless.
Ireland needed to respond quickly, and they did so within two minutes through a penalty try. A penalty that just found touch metres from the Scotland line set up an optimal attacking position, and when the first lineout drive was held up over the line, Ireland got the put-in. When the Scots scrum then collapsed with barely a metre to go, referee Ian Tempest did not hesitate to award the seven-point score.
The momentum had swung firmly in Ireland’s favour, and after 55 minutes they came close to scoring again from a driven lineout only to be held up on the line. Scotland’s creaking scrum conceded two penalties as the attack continued, however, and when a third offence was committed Megan Kennedy was yellow-carded for collapsing the scrum.
Hannah Smith moved from centre into the pack to defend the next scrum, which Ireland this time chose to spread wide after failing to get a push on. Yet again a stray pass let them down, and Liz Musgrove recovered for Scotland. The offensive soon resumed, but again Briggs spilled forward in the tackle.
Scotland lost the put-in, but captain Ciara Griffin’s pass from the base of the scrum was intercepted by Rollie, who raced almost the full length of the pitch to touch down, swerving round full-back Kim Flood then crossing the line just as winger Hannah Tyrrell got to her. Hooker Lana Skeldon added the two points, and Scotland were 15-7 up.
Ireland were far from finished, however, and with 10 minutes to go, No 8 Paula Fitzpatrick finished off a period of heavy pressure by scoring from two metres out. The conversion was missed, but the closeness of the score still brought to mind last year’s game at Broadwood, when Ireland snatched a victory with a last-minute score. There would be no repeat performance, however, as Scotland dug deep into their energy reserves to keep their hosts at pay.
Munro is happy as Scotland shade it
“The desire is there,” Munro, the head coach, said in summing up the character of his team. “They want to win – they don’t just capitulate when something doesn’t go well. We need to get better as a scrum, and today the scrum didn’t go particularly well at certain periods. That would normally have been enough to finish them off. There’s a much more positive attitude.
“Ireland made a lot of mistakes, we made a lot of mistakes. That was a game we would normally have lost. We’ve won against a good team.
“Having won [at home] last year was a psychological step, then you have it at the back of your mind that you might win away. The challenge then becomes can we do it? I was pleased with it.”
Chloe Rollie played central role
It was a collective victory, of course, but it certainly helps when you have a star in your team such as Rollie, who at the age of 22 is already one of the best, if not the best, counter-attackers in world rugby. Natural speed is a large part of her talent, of course, but the Lille professional’s awareness of what was going on around her also played a critical role in the score.
“Especially in that circumstance when it’s an interception, you just need to run,” Rollie said. “You just need to put your head down and go for it. If you can get as many metres as you can, that’s great, just go for it.
“That’s all that was in my head: just go. Just look for the full-back and her position, then either step or keep an eye out for your supporting players. The main thing was just run. Just go for it.
“I had to sight my run. I had to interest the 15 a bit and work off my step, just back myself. Then when I got nearer to the line I just dived for it. It was a close call, but I backed myself and finished it off.”
That last remark could apply to this victory as a whole. It was a close call, all right, and by no means a complete performance by Scotland. But they backed themselves, all right, and they finished Ireland off.
Ireland: K Flood; M Williams, K Fitzhenry, S Naoupu, H Tyrrell; M Briggs, A Hughes; L Peat, C Moloney, L Lyons, A McDermott, O Fitzsimons, C Griffin, C Molloy, P Fitzpatrick. Substitutes: A Baxter, L Galvin, N Cronin, M Claffey, L Feely.
Scotland: C Rollie; E Musgrove, L Thomson, H Nelson, H Smith; L Martin, S Law; S McMillan, L Skeldon, M Kennedy, E Wassell, D McCormack, S Bonar, R Malcolm, J Konkel. Substitutes: L McMillan, J Maxwell, L Smith, J Rettie, L Harris, S Cattigan.
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: penalty, Fitzpatrick.
Scotland: Tries: Nelson, Rollie. Con: Skeldon. Pen: Nelson.
Scoring sequence: 0-3 half-time, 0-8, 7-8, 7-13, 7-15, 12-15.
Yellow card: Scotland: Kennedy.
Referee: I Tempest (England).