The wonderfully unpredictable World Cup
August 6, 2014
Ireland's star - Niamh Briggs © IRB
There was a brief moment of uncertainty when Niamh Briggs hoofed the ball into the grassy bank at the end of Ireland's match against New Zealand. The camera switched to the players on the bench, they looked at the referee in anticipation and hope. Anticipation that the game was actually over and in hope that Briggs had not misjudged the situation. But like Ireland's performance, it was judged to perfection. The referee's whistle blew and relief and exultation took over.
The achievement of beating New Zealand cannot be overestimated. For New Zealand, it was their first defeat in the World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1991. Records are there to be broken. While Ireland came tantalisingly close to knocking over the All Blacks in November 2013 and ending the Kiwis' hopes of a perfect year, Ryan Crotty and Aaron Cruden's boot had different ideas and Irish eyes were crying, not gleaming.
For Heather O'Brien, when she was forced off in the dying embers of the game with what looked to be a wrist injury, her tears mixed seamlessly with the sweat of her effort. The toil and the trauma. In many ways she personified the Irish performance. It was body and minds on the line and sheer guts.
But at the centre of it all was the metronomic boot of Niamh Briggs. In front of the watching Jonathan Sexton, Briggs kicked all but one of her efforts, including a touchline conversion for Alison Miller's try. She has been the superstar of the World Cup to date but there are no guarantees she will end up with a winner's medal.
That's the beauty of this competition. Though they are amateur players but the standard is anything but. The matches include remarkable bits of individual skill and at present the winner could be any one of five teams. Ireland should be favourites having knocked over the four-time winners New Zealand but that's not how this tournament goes.
The local support enjoy France's win over South Africa © IRB
England, France, Australia and Canada are all bubbling along nicely. For England, they are now two from two and while Kat Merchant and Lydia Thompson scored lovely tries against Samoa, it could be the strength of their back-row and Emily Scarratt's eagle-eye boot that could see them into the final.
The back-row offers a remarkable conundrum for Gary Street. The star of Tuesday's game against Spain was No.7 Marlie Packer yet waiting in the wings at openside is Maggie Alphonsi, the figurehead of the women's game in England and someone who featured in a list of the top 20 most influential people in world rugby. Then you have vice-captain Sarah Hunter, blindside Heather Fisher and No.8 Alexandra Matthews and you Street has a dilemma of fitting five into three.
For France, while they are renowned for their forward dominance, their backs are clicking. Their bulldozing lock Assa Koita works well in tandem with No.8 Safi N'Diaye while fly-half Christelle le Duff grabbed two tries against South Africa and helped unleash their wingers.
Australia and Canada are also undefeated but write New Zealand off at your peril. With the men's World Cup set to kick-off in just over a year's time, you hope there will be just as many potential winners as we have at the moment in France. It may yet end up being a case of watching the Kiwis lifting their fifth World Cup in as many tournaments but what Ireland's heroic win over New Zealand showed to the world was the beauty of the competitive nature of this competition.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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