Alison Miller and Siobhan Fleming had just watched Ireland’s narrow 16-15 victory over England in the U20s Six Nations 2013 when they began hypothesising.
The room-mates had both been picked to start Ireland’s Women’s Six Nations match at Ashbourne Recreation Ground the following day, Fleming for the first time. “Imagine if we beat England tomorrow,” the pair mused.
“Can you imagine if I scored a hat-trick?” Miller asked Fleming.
The team-mates began laughing at the prospect. Miller had scored three tries in 10 test appearances up until that point, and Ireland had never beaten England in 18 attempts.
Six days previously, Ireland had needed a late Gillian Bourke try to edge past Wales 12-10, while England had racked up 76 points, and conceded none, in beating Scotland.
But as the hosts’ coach rumbled up the country lane that leads to the compact ground, there was a belief within the squad that they could give their visitors — missing several key players due to Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 preparation — a test.
“We always used to up our game against England. Even though we had never beaten them, we always had good performances against them,” Ireland’s captain that day, Fiona Coghlan, told World Rugby.
“There was a good vibe around the squad. It’s excitement, you want to pitch yourself against the best teams in the world and at that stage England were considered the best team in the world.”
Cheered on by vociferous support on the border of counties Meath and Dublin, Ireland made a stunning start.
Less than seven minutes was on the clock when Lynne Cantwell and Niamh Briggs combined to create space for Miller on the left wing, and the speedster cut back inside the covering defence to score.
“The first few minutes of the game I remember being tackled really hard and thinking ‘oh no, not another day of being pummelled by England’,” Miller admitted this week.
“It felt like a really good try and it was kind of hard to believe that we’d scored against England — it didn’t matter who scored the try — that we had scored that early in the game having some really good phases.”
Coghlan added: “Certainly getting a score against England seven minutes in definitely gives you a lift, and then the crowd gets behind you again. That first half was outstanding from an attacking and defensive point of view.”
With the home support firmly behind them, and a Briggs penalty edging them further in front, Ireland pressed for a second try and in the 25th minute Miller produced a brilliantly mazy run to provide it.
Receiving the ball from Cantwell in midfield, and outside of England’s 22, the left winger handed off three white-shirted defenders during an arcing run that ended in the right corner.
“I had a habit of running sideways across the pitch and it was something I’d always done in training or in clubs and sometimes it would come off, other times it wouldn’t,” Miller recalled.
“But I suppose the way I describe that try was athletically a good try but in terms of rugby, it probably wasn’t!
“And I remember when I was running with the ball I could hear people shout ‘straighten up!’ or ‘run straight!’ or ‘give it!’ and I suppose, not intentionally, but I ignored all the shouts.”
‘After that game I understood’
If there were shouts to ‘give it’ 10 minutes later then Nora Stapleton heeded them as she spun a pass to the left wing having dummied two England tacklers.
Miller was on hand to apply the finish and complete a first-half hat-trick, something not even the Portlaoise player had believed was possible just a few hours earlier.
“I’d obviously never got a hat-trick before in international rugby but to get one against a team that you’d never beaten before, in one half, I suppose was kind of strange,” she said.
“I was always, throughout my career, a bit of a self-doubter, and it’s funny because you look back now and you always think you weren’t going to be picked in every single game.
“But for me my first Irish coach had said I’d be a big threat and I didn’t believe him at the time, I couldn’t see what he was talking about.
“I suppose after that game I understood maybe what he’d seen.”
The hosts turned around 20-0 in front, but refused to rest on their laurels. England had scored 19 unanswered second-half points on their previous visit to Ashbourne two years previously, so Ireland knew there was work still to be done.
“To score three tries against England and not concede anything by half-time certainly gives you a pep in your step going in at half-time,” Coghlan said.
“Very much the talk at half-time was keep doing what we’re doing but push on, don’t sit back. We knew England would come out and change their game plan.”
A momentous occasion
Less than four minutes into the second half, Ireland scrum-half Larissa Muldoon fed Briggs, who had picked a brilliant line to score her country’s fourth try.
Briggs missed the resulting conversion, but Ireland did not falter and following some gruelling defensive sets were able to see out victory. Keeping their illustrious opponents scoreless in the process.
Coghlan said: “England, even at the end, they kept going looking for a try and we went through a huge amount of phases defensively to stop them getting in, or getting any significant line breaks to get in for a try.”
With three rounds of the Six Nations remaining, and work looming on Monday morning, celebrations following the historic victory were muted. But there is no doubt what the win meant to a team that would go on to wrap up a first Grand Slam.
“You have to take those wins and enjoy them,” Coghlan added. “They’re certainly momentous occasions that you’ll sit back and you’ll have them forever in your head, and if you were beating England every year it wouldn’t be as vivid.
“That was my only win against England so it will always be vivid in my mind because it was so rare.”