Maybe it was written in the stars that the Ireland women’s rugby team would clinch a first ever Grand Slam in the RBS Six Nations on St Patrick’s Day.
And although the scene at the Milanese town of Parabagio is usually an idyllic one, there was a distinctly Irish feel as the rain crackled the umbrellas on Sunday afternoon as Donegal duo Larissa Muldoon and Nora Stapleton took Ireland to the Promised Land.
“When we arrived on Saturday there were clear blue skies and the pitch was hard and sandy, which was an indication there was slow and sleet coming,” says Fahan’s Nora Stapleton, an All-Ireland winner with Donegal ladies at junior level in 2003 and intermediate seven years later. Stapleton is now Ireland’s out-half.
“We were in this beautiful little Italian village at the foot of the Alps and from the moment we got there the sun was shining,” says scrum-half Larissa Muldoon, a native of Cappry outside of Ballybofey. “But then as soon as we looked out the window on Sunday there was snow.”
There was no particular blueprint that had helped the Philip Doyle coached team to four successive wins in the competition so they would have to think on their feet once again. Each win had been different, although each as important.
When the Irish camp met at Johnstown House in Meath for the first time ahead of the new season in January there was a list of goals drawn up. A first Six Nations championship was not beyond the realms of impossibility.
With Stapleton only having a week’s training whilst coming back from a knee injury she was a replacement against Wales at Port Talbot on February’s first Sunday. Looking back now, Ireland’s Grand Slam journey was almost over before it began.
Muldoon, studying for a Masters in Sports Management and Leadership in Cardiff Metropolitan University, was as familiar with those in red as in green, while Stapleton was summoned from the bench late on.
Wales were 10-7 in front with just 11 minutes remaining and the home side had bossed the third quarter as Ireland were on the ropes.
“I was told to just start attacking Wales,” Stapleton recalls. “I managed to find a few gaps and we scored a try from Gillian Bourke with about five minutes left. It was massive result, especially as we had England in the next match.”
England rolled into Ashbourne with a fearsome reputation, having hammered Scotland 76-0 just a week beforehand. Ireland had lost their previous 17 meetings with England.
Full-back Niamh Briggs added a second half try to Alison Miller’s memorable hat-trick for a 25-0 win - it was only England’s second loss in 40 Six Nations matches.
“There was a maturity within in team,” Stapleton said. “For years we used to look at England and say ‘they’re so fit, so big, so strong, so skilful.’
“But a lot of girls play in England and play with and against English internationals week in and week out. We knew we could take the game to them.
“Everything we did was so clinical and so professional. England didn’t break our gainline once in the match.”
Muldoon adds: “It was the one day where everything clicked into place and we played perfectly. We always believed we had a performance like that in us and for me, playing alongside Nora was natural. We’re on the same wavelength.”
By the time the Irish team rolled in Lasswade, just outside of Edinburgh, the media interest had snowballed with a first ever Triple Crown at stake.
“A win is a win but we were a little bit nervous,” Stapleton adds of the 30-3 where Miller added another two tries, while Siobhan Fleming and Briggs also touched down. “Larissa and I developed an understanding and we could work our way out of situations.”
France arrived in Ashbourne as their typical erratic selves, a team capable of brilliance and befuddlement in equal measure. They had followed in Ireland’s steps by beating England and also whitewashed Wales, 32-0, after losing to Italy.
“France could’ve really ruined the party,” Stapleton says. “They really have the capability to turn it on and one thing we knew was they always would come out hard and try and dominate you.”
Ireland were 10-5 down at half-time with Briggs scoring a try before they were roared to a 15-10 victory thanks to Ailis Egan’s second half try.
“We now had fans,” Stapleton says. “There were people who knew nothing about us coming to support us, which was unheard of. And the atmosphere was brilliant.”
All roads then led to Milan. Italy, who were chasing an unprecedented third win in the competition after successes over France and Scotland, took an early 3-0 lead after only three minutes from the boot of Veronica Schiavon after Grace Davitt was penalised for not rolling away. Briggs levelled 10 minutes later from a penalty.
Italy’s Lucia Gai gave Ireland the chance to go in front for the first time when she came in at the side of the ruck on 51 minutes and full-back Briggs gratefully accepted. Stapleton kicked intelligently as Ireland battled desperately to hold onto their advantage as conditions worsened.
“It turned into a mud bath,” Stapleton says. “It was very messy and it made it hard to play the type of rugby we wanted to play. But we didn’t panic. We just opted to play a different way. We had to play tighter and bring the forwards into it much more.
“Legs were heavy and we had to play things very simple and only when the space came did we go for it. In the first half we gave away a silly penalty after only a minutes and a half so we had to play a little smarter when we decided to pick and go.
“Everyone realised that Italy were just waiting on us to make the tackle so it was a case of making the tackle and then back on your feet.”
Muldoon was a constant string-puller and despite her relative inexperience having just turned 22 six days beforehand, was a wise head. The Irish team had got to where they were by playing attacking and expansive rugby but now had to abandon those principals.
“We adjusted well,” Muldoon continues. “Because it was such a physical battle and was so slippery, it was very hard to make any sort of momentum. It was horrible but we dug in there. The crowd really kept us going.
“I was shouting and pulling people out because we knew we had to be well disciplined. As a No 9, I had to dictate but they listened to every call and that was important. Fair play to the Italians. They just wouldn’t give up.”
With the scoreboard not showing a clock in the latter stages, there was some disagreement over whether or not time was up. Clare Daniels, the English referee, didn’t clear up the ambiguity.
“Fiona Coghlan, our captain, was asking how long was left,” Muldoon adds. “The referee wouldn’t fell Fiona, who had asked a few times and I knew it was a line-out. I just asked the referee ‘is this the last play?,’ and she said it was so I knew if I got the ball, I needied to kick for territory.
“All I wanted to do was make sure it wasn’t blocked down and boot it up to the heavens. And when I did she blew the whistle and it was the most satisfying thing ever.”
Stapleton continues: “I didn’t know it was the last play as the referee wasn’t really saying anything for some reason. It was hard to know what was happening. Larissa did a great box kick to finish it off and it was just a case of ‘Oh my God - we’ve survived.’
When Jim McGuinness talks about his duties as Donegal’s Gaelic football manager, he talks about developing a synergy between his team and the young supporters, which will in turn see the support become the players in the years to come. Stapleton believes the same.
“I’d love to see more young girls get involved in the sport and more clubs to open,” she says. “I always enjoyed just kicking something. I loved playing Gaelic football with Donegal and I love to play rugby now. It’s a new challenge and the last few days have been unbelievable.”
Three-hundred people awaited the Irish team on Monday afternoon in Dublin Airport. President Michael D Higgins has promised a reception at the Áras in the not-too distant future.
“It’s hard to describe,” Stapleton said of the frenzy since Sunday. “When we arrived at the airport there were bands and families. There was massive support in arrivals at Dublin Airport. It’s great to see our hard work has paid off”
Muldoon insists the Irish team are like a family themselves and there was an element of sympathy to go with the success of the season. All good things, it’s often said, come to an end.
“I don’t think you could write it,” she said. “It’s a little sad looking back now that it’s over. All the weekends of commitment and all the hard work on those muddy night is over.
“But it was those nights that took over the line whilst we were in the gutter on Sunday. That’s what got us through. It’s such an honour to play wear that green jersey and play with them girls. They’re brilliant.”