Nora Stapleton and Ireland can now think of Six Nations when their hopes had almost been eclipsed

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Nora Stapleton and Ireland can now think of Six Nations when their hopes had almost been eclipsed
When France put the lights out on Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes with a 10-5 victory in Ashbourne last month, Nora Stapleton didn’t let the numbers crunch around her head.

When France put the lights out on Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes with a 10-5 victory in Ashbourne last month, Nora Stapleton didn’t let the numbers crunch around her head.

The out-half still tries to kick memories of that night into touch.

A night of high drama saw two delays for floodlight failure and Ireland battered France back towards their own try-line in the closing stages but couldn’t get over it despite chance after chance.

The few elated French screams of celebration were all that could be heard after referee Claire Hodnett’s final whistle.

Otherwise there was a stunned silence. The Grand Slam, for Ireland, had gone. There was to be no repeat of 2013.

“At the time, there were no thoughts of the championship,” Stapleton said this week. “Right then, it’s just about that game. You think what you could’ve done differently.

“It’s hard enough even now to think back on it and you try to forget it but it does pop into your head every so often.

“We really were frustrated with how it ended. We should’ve drawn the game and could’ve won the game.”

The tribalistic nature of the Six Nations means another challenge - a different challenge - is never too far away.

England had steam-rolled Ireland, who famously defeated New Zealand 17-14 in the pool stages, last August in the World Cup semi-final at the Stade Jean Bouin in Paris by 40 points to seven.

With England 8-3 up in Ashbourne, the contest effectively swung on the quick wits of Larissa Muldoon, the Irish scrum half from Cappry, who touched down in the 49th minute following a tap penalty.

Niamh Briggs kicked the winning penalty, to seal Ireland’s 11-8 victory, in the depths of injury time.

“You just never know what might happen,” Stapleton added in reference to Ireland’s refusal to throw in the towel.

“We know that we can compete with any team now. It’s about getting the right gameplan and it’s about working together to get a solid result.”

Ireland’s bravery would yield an unexpected reward from an unexpected source.

On Saturday night, Maria Magatti’s last-gasp try gave Italy a shock 17-12 victory over a France side who had won nine times in succession in the competition.

Ireland then defeated Wales 20-0 in a fuss-free Sunday afternoon in Swansea to join the French on six points at the top of the table.

France, whose points difference is 63 to Ireland’s 43, meet England at Twickenham on Saturday evening.

Then, on Sunday at Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, Ireland will take to the field knowing exactly what they require from wooden-spoonists Scotland, who have already conceded 154 points in four matches.

“In a way, it’s a nice position to be in,” Stapleton said in reference to this weekend’s scheduling of games.

“But we must maintain our standards and not go chasing scores right away.

“It’s about taking it in stages - start off by keeping it tight, playing through the stages and waiting for the space to open up.”

The chance of a second RBS Women’s Six Nations championship in three years and a fourth-placed finish at the World Cup shows how the sport is developing in Ireland. Stapleton believes a synergy can be taken advantage of.

“We’ve just a better understanding of what’s expected of us on the pitch,” she said.

“The main difference is that a lot of us were new to rugby when we came to it so it takes a long time to get the full game appreciation into your head.

“It’s such a different sport to all others. What you’re seeing now is a group of players who are exposed to a high level of rugby who are learning all the time - myself included - and now it’s coming through in the results.

“We now have girls who have come in playing the sport since they were kids.

“I’m going to meet up with Inishowen Rugby Club over Easter and am looking forward to getting to know the people. I wasn’t aware of any teams when I was growing up in Donegal so am delighted to be in a position that I can help.

“There are thousands of young girls in Ireland who want to play the sport.”

One of the younger members of the current squad is 24-year-old Muldoon. She and Stapleton, operate in the nine and 10 jerseys - the control centre of any rugby XV - when on the field together.

“We have an understanding and would always be helping one another out,” Stapleton added. “We’ve chats off the field and, when there’s a stoppage in play, we will have a quick word to make sure we’re doing things right.

“It’s not a Donegal thing or anything like that - it’s the positions we’re in - but it’s nice that we are both from Donegal as it’s an important combination on any team.”

This year’s Six Nations has seen another member of the Irish squad come from the county.

Replacement back or second-row Katie Norris from Moville won a first cap in Ireland’s opening day win in Florence against Italy.

“I wouldn’t have known Katie before,” Stapleton added. “I’d come across her here in Dublin as I play with Old Belvedere and she is with Blackrock. When she got onto the Leinster squad we would bump into one another more and I’d heard the accent.

“We’re just over the mountain from one another and probably would’ve played GAA against one another so it’s funny how the two of us got to know each other through rugby.

“She’s coming on leaps and bounds and is a really genuine girl, who has a great future ahead of her in the green jersey.”

Fahan, Moville or Cappry couldn’t be considered hotbeds of rugby. But Stapleton, who won the 2010 All-Ireland IFC with Donegal, insists that sporting skills can be transferable across different codes.

“Donegal isn’t a stronghold of rugby but I think it’s the stronghold of sport,” she said. “As kids we always played ball games. Now, in the positions we play, it’s important to read the play and make quick decisions.

“It’s decision after decision but it comes from playing soccer and Gaelic football.”

Stapleton, like Ireland, refused to buckle after that loss to France. Now they’re in a position to rectify that.

“It’s an opportunity to win the championship and that’s not really something we expected,” she added. “There’s always another game afterwards and you just have to get on with it. That’s what we did.”