Women's Six Nations
Ireland 13-10 France
The Ireland Women mastered the squally conditions at Donnybrook to deservedly grind out a 13-10 win over France in front of an enraptured 3,886-strong crowd on Sunday afternoon.
Three Connacht played played their part with full-back Mairead Coyne, scrum-half Mary Healy and flanker Claire Molloy providing stellar performances. Ciara O'Connor, Ruth O'Reilly and Nichola Fryday were unused replacements as Tom Tierney's side made it three victories on the trot to join England on 14 points at the top of the Six Nations table.
The concern for Ireland at half-time was that they only led 3-0 despite dominating for the opening 30 minutes with the backing of a particularly strong wind.
Nora Stapleton's 12th-minute penalty - her one success from two early attempts - put the hosts in front but they had captain Paula Fitzpatrick yellow carded as the interval approached and with defending champions France pressing for a try.
That score arrived just three minutes into the second half, French centre Caroline Ladagnous was freed up on the right wing to touch down. Jessy Tremouliere topped it off with an excellent conversion.
However, Ireland hit back within seven minutes, profiting from Marjorie Mayans' sin-binning to drive influential 22-year-old prop Leah Lyons over for her second try in as many games.
Stapleton converted with the wind dying down and also swapped penalties with Tremouliere, the girls in green showing impressive composure as they pinned France back in their own half. Unrelenting pressure from Ireland left les Bleues error-strewn and with lock Lenaig Corson also yellow carded, there was no way back for the visitors.
This was a hugely significant result for the Ireland Women against one of their 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup pool opponents and the world's fourth-ranked team. The sides will renew rivalries down the road at UCD in August.
Tough-tackling centre Jenny Murphy stamped her authority on the game in the opening minutes with a powerful hit on Tremouliere. The baton was taken up by the fired-up Irish forwards who quickly won a penalty from a maul, laying down an early marker.
Clever variation from a lineout using Ailis Egan led to a try-scoring opportunity, but loosehead Lyons was held up past the try-line. A harsh call by referee Sara Cox against Egan in a subsequent scrum allowed France to clear their lines.
Murphy then caught the eye again with an excellent line break. The French, who had hammered Scotland 55-0 in the last round, were forced to infringe soon after and Stapleton was unfortunate to hit the right hand post with her first penalty attempt.
Three minutes later, TMO Sean Davey drew Cox's attention to a pull back by Romane Menager on Claire Molloy and this time Stapleton split the posts from closer in. As the rain swept in, France continued to struggle facing into the elements.
Molloy, Ciara Griffin and Claire McLaughlin all stood out in defence, with the latter also handling more ball in advanced positions as Ireland sought to add to their lead.
Mairead Coyne could not hold onto Lindsay Peat's pass as space opened up on the left wing, and the prop had to weather a mini storm at scrum time as the French set piece turned the screw and won a series of penalties.
Errors were now creeping into Ireland's game, although they steadied the scrum and held up a French maul. Nonetheless, Egan's work at the breakdown went unrewarded by referee Cox and Fitzpatrick's clear collapsing of an advancing maul saw her promptly sin-binned.
Despite holding out in defence before the break, Ireland leaked a try early on the resumption as lock Corson stripped the ball from the strong-carrying Sophie Spence and France - albeit with a Safi N'Diaye pass that looked slightly forward - gave centre Ladagnous a simple finish wide on the right.
Full-back Tremouliere swept over a terrific conversion for a four-point lead, before a persistent spell of forward pressure saw Ireland driven up into try-scoring range by Spence and Lyons who both consistently got over the gain-line.
Fitzpatrick's return from the bin came with Ireland pressing from a lineout near the right corner. Successive penalties led to flanker Mayans being binned for not rolling away and Ireland were over the whitewash in the very next phase.
After a lineout ball was transferred down from Marie Louise Reilly to Spence, a great drive saw prop Lyons pile over for a rousing 50th-minute try which Stapleton coolly converted from the right of the posts.
With the wind now not having an impact and France suddenly struggling for a foothold, pressure from a brilliant touchfinder by Stapleton set up another purple patch from the workhorse Irish pack. It yielded a left-sided penalty which Stapleton landed for 13-7, entering the final quarter.
Tremouliere, who moved in to out-half, clawed back those three points just a few minutes later, rewarding a well-executed French maul, and the tension was obvious as Stapleton overcooked a kick to touch from a penalty.
However, the Donegal woman made amends in the closing stages with some clever tactical kicking and well-struck efforts into touch as France's penalty count increased. They continued to fall foul of the referee's whistle and under constant pressure from Ireland's swarming defence (flanker Molloy excelled again in this area), they suffered a second yellow card in the 74th minute when Corson was pinged for not rolling away.
Ireland had enough possession and territory to threaten the try-line again late on. Peat was stopped short in front of the posts and ripped of possession before Les Bleus threw caution to the wind. They attacked out wide until the girls in green forced a final knock-on which confirmed a clean sweep of Irish Six Nations wins against the three French sides this weekend.
The three-point triumph keeps Tierney's squad in the hunt for the Six Nations title and a possible Grand Slam. As skipper Fitzpatrick said afterwards, their destiny is in their own hands now as they draw breath ahead of two huge clashes with Wales (away) and England (home) next month.
Ireland: Mairead Coyne (Galwegians/Connacht); Kim Flood (Railway Union/Leinster), Jenny Murphy (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Claire McLaughlin (Cooke/Ulster), Eimear Considine (UL Bohemians/Munster); Nora Stapleton (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Mary Healy (Galwegians/Connacht); Lindsay Peat (Railway Union/Leinster), Leah Lyons (Highfield/Munster), Ailis Egan (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Sophie Spence (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Marie Louise Reilly (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemians/Munster), Claire Molloy (Bristol/Connacht), Paula Fitzpatrick (St. Mary's/Leinster) (capt).
Replacements used: Larissa Muldoon (Railway Union/Leinster) for Healy (51 mins), Ciara Cooney (Railway Union/Leinster) for Griffin (68). Not used: Ciara O'Connor (Galwegians/Connacht), Ilse van Staden (Cooke/Ulster), Ruth O'Reilly (Galwegians/Connacht), Nichola Fryday (Tullamore/Connacht), Nikki Caughey (Railway Union/Ulster), Louise Galvin (UL Bohemians/Munster).