The Ireland Under-18 Girls Sevens squad broke new ground by reaching their first ever final and winning it as they were deservedly crowned UK School Games Rugby 7s champions at Loughborough University on Saturday night.
Having won four of their six pool matches, the Ireland girls saved their best for last when they dethroned defending champions England South East (17-5) at the semi-final stage and then overcame pre-tournament favourites Wales 19-10 in a pulsating final under floodlights.
Ballinasloe RFC duo Meabh Deely and Aoibheann Reilly, and Westport Rugby Club's Grace Browne Moran conducted themselves brilliantly, along with the entire squad, in playing high tempo rugby and Louise Mulhall, on her coaching debut, was delighted with the history-making performances and results. “The girls came into the tournament eager to work and excited to play. I think over the weekend they learned really quickly and gelled really well as a team,” said the Wicklow woman, who was ably assisted on the touchline by team manager Eimear Flannery.
“I’m proud of how they bounced back from their two defeats (in the pool stages), and their final two performances against England South East and Wales were amazing to watch – they all really stepped up to the plate and showed great heart, especially in defence.”
Friday saw the Combined Provinces selection win three of their four games, with eight players sharing out 16 tries. They kicked off with a 24-7 victory over England North and recovered well from a one-point loss to England South East, getting back to winning ways against both England Midlands (38-0) and England South West (21-10).
Tullamore starlet Megan Burns and Railway Union’s Eve Higgins scored four tries apiece on the opening day, with Higgins determined to make her mark after missing out on the 2015 and 2016 UK School Games through injury. The impressive young out-half has already played with the Ireland Women’s Sevens Development team and was also part of the Ireland 15s training squad in the build-up to the Women’s Rugby World Cup.
It took just 14 seconds for captain Lane to cross the whitewash as Ireland began day 2 with a comprehensive 31-12 success against Scotland. There was some excellent work at restarts and in defence – Aimee Clarke and Breen both impressed in these areas – with Lane managing to scamper away from halfway for try number two.
A couple of lovely sidesteps from Meabh Deely saw the Ballinasloe speedster also score from halfway to make it 21-5 at half-time, and second half efforts from Burns, who unlocked the Scottish defence with a terrific run from her own half, and Ellie Ingram, who jinked her way over in the final seconds, took Ireland past 30 points. A superb tackle and turnover from Wall and Lucinda Kinghan’s dazzling run from deep were two eye-catching highlights before the final try.
However, Ireland tasted defeat in their final pool match, going down 24-10 to Wales who came into the School Games with plenty of confidence after their bronze medal finish at July’s Commonwealth Youth Games. The Welsh scored two tries in each half, while Higgins accelerated away from halfway for Ireland’s first and Burns bagged the second, brilliantly breaking past three players from her own 10-metre line to run in one of the tries of the weekend.
Lane and her team-mates showed a lot of character and resilience to bounce back from that setback – and also from the concession of a first-minute try to England South East in a stellar semi-final clash. Higgins hit back immediately from the restart, brushing aside two tackles and showing impressive pace to stay ahead of Georgia Newman and register a smashing 60-metre score.
A finely-balanced first half ended with Ireland grabbing a timely second try. They won two scrums against the head, and from the second one, Burns swerved past an initial defender and then took two more out with a dummy as she flew over from the English 10-metre line. A pinpoint conversion from Higgins made it 12-5 at the break.
Ireland soaked up pressure from the South East team – Higgins, Fethard forward Wall and Burns all produced try-saving tackles – and then struck the killer blow with 12 minutes on the clock. Mallow ace Lane blocked a kick just inside the English half and gathered the loose ball to dart clear and secure her side’s passage through to the final thanks to a 17-5 triumph.
The battle of the Celts saw Ireland take on unbeaten Wales in the decider and they signalled their intent with a lung-bursting first-minute break from Kinghan. The Monaghan youngster followed up with a turnover-winning tackle, Lane and Deely carried purposefully on opposite wings before Burns seized her opportunity to run in her eighth try of the weekend – putting her joint-top of the tournament standings. Credit to Higgins for two monster clear-outs in the build-up.
There were some crunching tackles going in as the girls in green imposed themselves physically on the Welsh and gave very little away defensively. From a turnover near halfway, some neat interplay between Breen and Kinghan freed up Deely who outpaced the covering defender from outside the Welsh 22 to touch down and also convert, making it 12-0 after five minutes of hectic play.
Higgins did likewise past the seven-minute mark, Lane and Burns both proving elusive again before the Railway Union talent outfoxed the Welsh defence, feinting to throw a pass and then shooting in between two defenders to raid straight in under the posts. Wales had a mountain to climb at 19-0 down.
The Commonwealth Youth Games bronze medallists showed their mettle with a stirring fight-back in the second half. Lucy Packer showed her pace and stepping ability to pull a try back in the ninth minute, but Ireland were defiant in defence, Aoibheann Reilly and Wall doing just enough to prevent a Welsh try just inches away from the line, and the latter bundling another attacker into touch soon after.
Wicklow’s Saoirse O’Reilly came on to aid Ireland’s efforts in the closing stages – Grace Browne Moran was unfortunately sidelined with a wrist injury – and although Packer succeeded in scoring her second try of the contest, time was up on the match clock so Mulhall’s charges took the spoils by nine points in the end.
Savouring her side’s success in Loughborough, victorious captain Lane said: “It was a bit daunting but we knew we had a good day behind us, and we just knew we had to win this. That was the only option – winning. It’s just a really, really good feeling…just that all our hard work has paid off.”
Seven-try heroine Higgins added: “It means everything, to be honest. I’d two chances to be here (at the School Games) the last two years and through injury I couldn’t. It means the world. It was a team effort obviously, I couldn’t be prouder of the girls. We were possessed out there and we just put everything out on that pitch for the last 14 minutes. We had the self belief to come through.”
With the likes of Emma Murphy, Katie Heffernan, Chloe Blackmore, Claire Boles and Anna McGann all coming through the School Games and Ireland U-18 Sevens pathways to play on the World Sevens Series circuit last season, the current crop will be hoping to follow in their footsteps and push on into the senior ranks.
The combined coaching work and talent development at club, provincial and IRFU national level has now produced UK School Games champions, and the hard-working graduates of this rewarding annual U-18 tournament – both this year and in recent seasons – are ensuring that the future is most definitely bright for Irish Women’s rugby. Next up for the IRFU Sevens programme is the Rugby Europe U-18 Women’s Sevens Championship in Vichy, France on September 16-17.
If you or a family member or friend are interested in playing rugby for your local girls or Women’s team, check out the IRFU’s #GiveItATry initiative for all the information needed. Click here for our ‘Give It A Try’ section.
IRELAND GIRLS SEVENS Squad (2017 UK School Games, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire, England, Friday, September 1-Saturday, September 2):
Enya Breen (Bantry Bay RFC/Munster)
Megan Burns (Tullamore RFC/Leinster)
Aimee Clarke (Railway Union RFC/Leinster)
Meabh Deely (Ballinasloe RFC/Connacht)
Eve Higgins (Railway Union RFC/Leinster)
Ellie Ingram (Enniskillen RFC/Ulster)
Lucinda Kinghan (Monaghan RFC/Ulster)
Emily Lane (Mallow RFC/Munster) (capt)
Grace Browne Moran (Westport RFC/Connacht)
Saoirse O’Reilly (Wicklow RFC/Leinster)
Aoibheann Reilly (Ballinasloe RFC/Connacht)
Dorothy Wall (Fethard RFC/Munster)
IRELAND GIRLS SEVENS UK School Games Results –
Friday, September 1 –
Ireland 24 England North 7
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Eve Higgins 2, Aimee Clarke, Megan Burns; Cons: Enya Breen 2
Ireland 21 England South East 22
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Megan Burns 2, Emily Lane; Cons: Meabh Deely 3
Ireland 38 England Midlands 0
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Saoirse O’Reilly, Eve Higgins 2, Aoibheann Reilly, Aimee Clarke, Lucinda Kinghan; Cons: Meabh Deely 4
Ireland 21 England South West 10
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Enya Breen, Megan Burns, Aoibheann Reilly; Cons: Eve Higgins 2, Meabh Deely
Saturday, September 2 –
Ireland 31 Scotland 12
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Emily Lane 2, Meabh Deely, Megan Burns, Ellie Ingram; Cons: Meabh Deely 3
Wales 24 Ireland 10
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Eve Higgins, Megan Burns
Semi-Final – England South East 5 Ireland 17
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Eve Higgins, Megan Burns, Emily Lane; Con: Eve Higgins.
Final – Wales 10 Ireland 19
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Megan Burns, Meabh Deely, Eve Higgins; Cons: Meabh Deely, Eve Higgins