And then there were four. The identities of the four teams that will contest the Women’s All-Ireland League play-offs were revealed after yesterday’s final round games, writes Aisling Crowe.

Carol Staunton played her final game for St Mary’s in their defeat to Galwegians.

WOMEN’S ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: Sunday, March 26

BLACKROCK 5 OLD BELVEDERE 29, Stradbrook

GALWEGIANS 49 ST. MARY’S 36, Crowley Park

HIGHFIELD 5 UL BOHEMIANS 26, Woodleigh Park

RAILWAY UNION 46 COOKE 20, Willow Lodge

UL Bohemians, who finished top of the eight-team league, will face fourth-placed Galwegians, while the other semi-final is a Dublin derby as Old Belvedere travel to Railway Union who ended the regular season in second position.

At the other end of the table, bottom side St. Mary’s played their part in a scintillating encounter with Galwegians in Glenina but they will be in the Leinster League next season following their relegation.

It was an especially poignant occasion at Crowley Park as St. Mary’s captain and former Galwegians and Ireland forward Carol Staunton played her last game for the club. Despite 14 tries, six conversions and a thrilling game of rugby, Galwegians and St. Mary’s still had enough breath left to serenade the departing flanker with a rendition of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’.

Galwegians shaded it 49-36 on the scoreboard but Mary’s were forced to play 60 minutes with just 14 players. Hooker Leah Hayden suffered a hand injury and with no specialist replacement on the bench, she could not be replaced and scrums were uncontested. Eily Coghlan confirmed after that match Hayden would have a scan on her injured hand.

The home side got the game off to a flying start, opening the scoring with a try on four minutes but Mary’s hit back quickly through Christy Haney four minutes later. A penalty edged Galwegians three points ahead before Ireland international Orla Fitzsimons scored a try in a perfect riposte.

A burst of three tries from Galwegians went unanswered as Mary’s adjusted to life without Hayden and their numerical disadvantage, but Grainne Egan pulled one back for the visitors just before half-time and Elizabeth Brophy, who only recently joined Mary’s, landed the conversion.

Galwegians opened the second half with a brace of early tries, their 15 players affording them width that Mary’s struggled to cope with. However, on 62 minutes, New Zealander Shayne Richardson powered through four tackles and forced herself over the line to reduce the deficit to 39-29.

Paula Fitzpatrick, who led Ireland to second place in the Six Nations, then brought her club to within three points of Galwegians, scooping the ball up at a ruck and powering over for a try. However, ‘Wegians emptied their bench and a two further tries before the final whistle put the result beyond doubt and cut Mary’s bonus point haul to one.

Speaking afterwards, Coghlan said: “I would like to pay tribute to Carol, she is a fantastic captain and leader and we are all sad to see her leave. I was very proud of the girls today and the spirit and dedication they showed. Our focus now is on rebuilding for next year, working on our skill-set and getting promoted to the All-Ireland League straight away.”

Galwegians’ immediate priority is next Sunday’s league semi-final in Annacotty against UL Bohemians whose 26-5 defeat of Munster rivals Highfield ended the Cork club’s own play-off hopes.

Aoife O’Sullivan opened the scoring for the Limerick side on three minutes and their blistering start was emphasised by Mairead Kelly’s burst through the centre to touch down on 12 minutes. Kerry goalkeeper Edel Murphy landed the conversion.

Newly-wed Rachel Allen-Connolly scored UL Bohs’ third try on 22 minutes which was again converted by Murphy. Niamh Kavanagh was stopped short of the line after a daring solo run from inside her own half, and the teams went into the dressing rooms with UL holding a 19-0 half-time lead.

Highfield dominated the play early in the second half but it took until the 73rd minute for them to finally get a try, Nicola Scully crossing the line in the corner. Eimear Considine wrapped up the bonus point victory in the final minute as the Ireland international raced out of defence and this time, Highfield could not prevent her from scoring.

“We have enjoyed a very good season so far,” said John Keane of UL Bohemians afterwards. “There has been just the one defeat all year and we’re very happy with how we performed today. We take it one game at a time and we’re now focused on the semi-final against Galwegians next weekend.”

A 29-5 bonus point success against fierce local rivals Blackrock cemented Old Belvedere’s place in the league play-offs. Again, a fast, attacking start allowed them to leave a telling blow as Jackie Shiels claimed the first of her three tries after an intense period of possession.

Second row Rebecca Schwartz, making her first start for Old Belvedere, had an impact in the scrum, where ‘Belvo dominated their hosts, and in other areas of the field. A penalty underneath the posts on 15 minutes saw Shiels extend the lead to eight points.

Blackrock grew into the contest and their expansive attacking game, which caused Belvedere problems in the All-Ireland Cup semi-final earlier this month, began to crank into gear.

Shiels replied to the Blackrock threat with her second try, which she converted to make it 15-0 to the visitors. Bostonian Milli Croman was sharp to the possibility of turning defence into attack for Belvedere and after scrambled defence repelled wave after wave of Blackrock attacks, the winger grabbed the ball after a knock-on and galloped three-quarters of the pitch for her try, which Shiels converted for a half-time lead of 22-0.

All this happened while Belvedere were reduced to 14 players after Roisin O’Donnell’s yellow card for a high tackle. Blackrock’s strong start to the second period was rewarded with a try from Eimear Corri but right at the death Shiels completed her hat-trick to put the seal on a 24-point triumph.

“Franziska Klappoth was awarded our player of the match,” said Old Belvedere forward Ruth McElroy. “She and Maria Kenny had to do a lot of rucking and clearing-out because the forwards weren’t quick enough to cover the Blackrock wide attacks at times and she created the fourth try.”

For Mairead Holohan of Blackrock there was obvious disappointment. She said: “The scoreline doesn’t reflect the game very well. We created lots of chances but we didn’t score whereas Old Belvedere took their chances. Eimear Corri got our only score of the game but we have a few weeks now to prepare for the All-Ireland Cup final.”

Facing Old Belvedere next week is Railway Union who also claimed a bonus point win of their own, 46-20 the final score at home to seventh-placed Cooke.

Tries from Claire Ryan, Juliet Short, Lucy O’Sullivan and Katie Heffernan ensured that bonus point was secured by half-time and Ryan went on to score two more tries as part of a fantastic overall display by the Railway Union full-back. A second try from Heffernan and a penalty try gave Railway a convincing success.

The game was notable for Ireland Under-18 Sevens international Megan O’Brien’s first start at this level. She was the 46th different player to take to the pitch for Railway during the league campaign.

“It is a phenomenal amount of players to use and it is a testament to our squad who have got us to the league semi-final and the cup semi-final too,” said John Cronin, Railway Union’s director of rugby. “We have four big weekends of rugby ahead of us hopefully with the seconds also getting to a cup semi-final so we will need all of those 46 players.

“It was another good performance today and, yet again, Claire Ryan was outstanding. She has been our standout player this season and is a leader and huge influence on the team. Not only has she been fantastic in attack but rock solid in defence and in a number of games her do-or-die tackles have saved us at the end.”

WOMEN’S ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE SEMI-FINALS: Sunday, April 2

UL BOHEMIANS (1st) v GALWEGIANS (4th), Annacotty, 1pm

RAILWAY UNION (2nd) v OLD BELVEDERE (3rd), Willow Lodge, 1pm

 

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