Four-try England got the better of Ireland in their Women’s Rugby World Cup Pool B opener at Surrey Sports Park.
Ireland’s sterling efforts, particularly in defence, warranted more out of this game, but tries from Fiona Pocock and Katherine Merchant had them 12-0 down at half-time.
Full-back Niamh Briggs missed penalty and drop goal attempts and while centre Lynne Cantwell threatened with ball in hand for Ireland, Amy Turner and Maggie Alphonsi touched down in the second half to seal a bonus point for the tournament hosts.
Ireland have never beaten England in women’s rugby but steadily, the difference between the sides has been coming down year on year. The English were made to battle for a 22-5 victory in Esher in this past season’s Six Nations.
It was a similar story here and the girls in green really deserved to be closer on the final scoreboard, given how closely matched the sides were in many sectors.
Despite some obvious nerves and uncharacteristic errors, England, with five successive Six Nations titles behind them, showed their finishing power when it mattered and two tries towards the end of both halves put them out of Ireland’s reach.
Fittingly, the fourth and final one fell to tireless flanker Maggie Alphonsi who put in 21 tackles throughout this gripping tussle.
The result will leave Fiona Coghlan and her team-mates crestfallen but their overall display was such that they will hold no fear about taking on the USA and Kazakhstan in their remaining pool games.
Playing into the wind, Ireland stood firm during an early barrage from Gary Street’s side, but numbers out wide on the left led to winger Pocock picking off a ninth minute try, which out-half McLean converted.
England’s forwards were beginning to boss matters as the first half wore on, but a frustrating penalty count and some tigerish tackling from the Irish kept them out of scoring range.
Ireland, for their part, threatened when Helen Brosnan and Cantwell combined in the backs, and a dropped pass foiled a promising move. They pushed on and drew further encouragement when a move involving winger Nora Stapleton created a penalty. However, Briggs was off target with the kick.
Amy Davis was well-tackled by Heather Fisher as Ireland looked to break their duck, and as the first half came to a close, England clinically turned possession into points. Alphonsi rampaged through the middle after a quick lineout, and the recycle was worked out to winger Merchant for the second try. McLean missed the conversion and a late penalty as Ireland turned around with a 12-0 deficit.
Strong forward play from Coghlan, Claire Molloy and Joy Neville helped Ireland begin the second half in good stead, again though their efforts went unrewarded as Briggs missed a drop goal shot.
Fisher, part of an impressive England back row, raced downfield on a break which got the home side firing again. A quick tap penalty from scrum half Turner saw her score from close range and push the lead out to 17-0.
Both Philip Doyle and Street turned to their benches for the final quarter, and England got a flattering fourth try, with Alphonsi clinching the bonus point just minutes after a successful penalty from McLean.
However, Doyle’s charges did enough on the opening night to suggest that they can better their eighth place finish from four years ago in Edmonton, and it will be a case of onwards and upwards for Tuesday’s encounter with the USA, who top the pool courtesy of a 51-0 win over the Kazakhs.
ENGLAND WOMEN: Danielle Waterman; Katherine Merchant, Emily Scarratt, Rachael Burford, Fiona Pocock; Katy McLean, Amy Turner; Rochelle Clark, Amy Garnett, Sophie Hemming, Becky Essex, Joanna McGilchrist, Heather Fisher, Maggie Alphonsi, Catherine Spencer (capt).
Replacements used: Claire Purdy for Clark, Emma Layland for Garnett, Sarah Hunter for Fisher, Charlotte Barras for Merchant, Tamara Taylor for Essex, Alice Richardson for Burford (all 62 mins), La Toya Mason for Turner (72)
IRELAND WOMEN: Niamh Briggs; Amy Davis, Joanne O’Sullivan, Lynne Cantwell, Nora Stapleton; Helen Brosnan, Tania Rosser; Fiona Coghlan (capt), Gillian Bourke, Louise Austin, Kate O’Loughlin, Marie Louise Reilly, Orla Brennan, Claire Molloy, Joy Neville.
Replacements used: Shannon Houston for Cantwell, Yvonne Nolan for Austin (both 62 mins), Sinead Ryan for Neville (75), Laura Guest for Coghlan (80+1). Not used: Carol Staunton, Louise Beamish, Mairead Kelly.