Forget the PRO12 and the World Cup, Garryowen Rugby Club was the place to be on Saturday afternoon as Ulster Women nearly pulled off a shock win against Munster in the rugby heartland of Limerick.
Despite Ulster pounding the home team’s line for most of the second half the Munster girls managed to hold on to claim the game by 18 – 12 but the post match talk was of the Ulster performance with Ulster youngsters Nikki Caughey, Gemma McCutcheon and Poppy Cleall singled out for outstanding displays.
In truth though this was a real 22 women performance with the entire team stepping up for a ferocious second half display with veterans Laura Nicholl and Grace Davitt rolling back the years to inspire the youngsters around them.
Ulster kicked off into an extremely strong wind and with the elements very much against them the visitors tried to work their way up field with driving runs from Glenda Mellon and Brigid Reynolds. The Munster defence held firm and, with Niamh Briggs at the back, the home side were able to clear the danger through the boot of the Irish International.
Ulster were unlucky to lose experienced prop Lauren Day in the opening exchanges but Laura Feely stepped up to the challenge, competing well in the set and the loose. As the half progressed the Munster pack, led by the excellent Joy Neville, began to get on top and, after 25 minutes of outstanding defence from the Ulster girls, Munster finally found a bit of space to score in the corner to take a 5 – 0 lead.
Unfortunately, as with Leinster last week, Ulster shipped a second try shortly after, taking the score to 10 – 0 but with the wind getting stronger a ten point deficit would have been a good result to take into the second half.
Ulster upped their defensive effort for the remainder of the half but, with the clock ticking down, Munster managed to work their third, and crucial score, leaving Ulster an uphill task in the second half turning round 15 – 0 down.
Munster started the second half strongly looking for that crucial score but Ulster defended well and ten minutes into the second period a sensational break by Zoe Templeton put Ulster deep into Munster territory.
The home side struggled to clear the ball and the clearance kick was fielded by Poppy Cleall who powered for the line taking the Munster defence with her. A delightful offload from Cleall kept the move alive for Laura Nicholl to feed Nikki Caughey with the youngster touching down close to the posts. Grace Davitt added the extras taking the score to 15 – 7 and it was game on.
Munster hit back with a crucial penalty to leave Ulster 11 points adrift at 18 – 7 but the Ulster girls refused to take it lying down and proceeded to batter the Munster line for the next 15 minutes. Davitt, Lizzie Ballentine, Rachael Flemming and Stacey Lea Kennedy all came within inches of the line but Munster managed to hold on, with Neville and Briggs outstanding in defence for the home side.
With the Ulster back three of Ashleigh Baxter, Templeton and Caughey denying Munster the option of kicking clear the home side were forced to try and run the ball out of their own 22. Ulsters aggressive defence managed to turn over the ball and driving runs from Ballentine and Kennedy set up a ruck only a few feet from the Munster line. Kennedy read the situation well and burrowed under the defence to score Ulster’s second try to take the score to 18 -12 with 5 minutes remaining.
Ulster looked to have stolen it when Hilary Quinn looked to have broken through only to be called back for a knock on and Cleall, Kennedy and Quinn continued to stick it to the home side with Ulster attacking until the final whistle.
Caughey looked to snatch the game with the last play but her kick ahead was fielded by the impressive Briggs and the classy fullback cleared to touch, much to the relief of the home crowd!
A fantastic game by both sides showing the real strength in depth in the women’s game in Ireland.
Our Woman of the Match goes to Gemma McCutcheon who produced an tireless display at wing forward showing a match day maturity well beyond her years.
Well bring you the post match reaction from both sides later today or tomorrow!
Ulster (1-15) Lizzie Ballentine (c) (Cooke), Stacey Lea Kennedy (City of Derry), Lauren Day (Cooke), Glenda Mellon (City of Derry) , Brigid Reynolds (Cavan), Gemma McCutcheon (Enniskillen), Caroline Kelly (Cooke), Nikita Armstrong (Cooke), Imogen Porter (Cooke), Ashleigh Baxter (Belfast Harlequins), Laura Nichol (Cooke), Nikki Caughey (Belfast Harlequins), Zoe Templeton (Belfast Harlequins), Eliza Downey (Cooke), Grace Davitt (Cooke). (16-22) Laura Feeley (Sligo), Emma Lowe (Cooke), Poppy Cleall (Exile), Hilary Quinn (Cavan), Larissa Muldoon (Exile), Rachael Reynolds (City of Derry), Teah Maguire (Cooke).
Munster (1-15) Fiona Hayes, Chris Fanning, Gillian Bourke, Maeve D’Arcy, Heather O’Brien, Siobhan Fleming, Laura Guest, Joy Neville (c), Clara Bracken, Laura O’Mahoney, Ashling Hutchins, Nicola Scully, Naimh Kavanagh, Claire Keohane, Niamh Briggs. (16-22) Noreen Cleary, Orlaith Buckley, Elaine Anthony, Donna Hughes, Louise Costello, Olivia Stapleton, Geraldine Rea.