From The Vaults

22 April 2022
The greatest upset in Rugby World Cup history..?

Was a shock result in a pool match of the 2014 women's Rugby World Cup the greatest upset in Rugby World Cup history?

In 2013 Fiona Coghlan captained Ireland to a comprehensive 25-0 victory over England. In doing so, they recorded a first Irish Grand Slam and ended seven consecutive years of Red Rose domination in the women's 6 Nations.

It was the clearest sign yet that the international landscape was changing. Between 2002 and 2010, England and New Zealand had contested three consecutive Rugby World Cup finals with the Black Ferns prevailing in each.

France beat both Ireland and England to claim a 6 Nations Grand Slam of their own in 2014. Canada had beaten France the previous year and pushed New Zealand close in a summer friendly before the teams headed to France to take part in the 2014 Rugby World Cup.

All of these results suggested that the gap between England, New Zealand and the rest had narrowed considerably, and that competitive rugby could be expected from start to finish.

As usual qualification for the semi-finals would be hard won. Only the three pool group winners were guaranteed a spot, with one best runner-up completing the line-up. As a consequence, a single defeat in the group stage was likely to be enough to end a side's chances of progression.

Arguably the toughest group was Pool B, which had drawn four-times champions New Zealand with 1991 champions USA, Ireland and Kazakhstan. As expected, New Zealand crushed Kazakhstan in their opening match, 79-5, while Ireland recovered from an early try to narrowly edge out USA 23-17 in Marcoussis.

This set-up a winner takes all contest between Ireland and New Zealand four days later, on 5 August 2014, with the mighty Black Ferns, who had not lost a Rugby World Cup match since 1991, clear favourites to progress.

Captained by the inspirational Fiao'o Fa'amausili, the New Zealand XV was full of players who understood what it took to win the Rugby World Cup. Renee Wickliffe, Huriana Manuel, Kelly Brazier were all involved in 2010 and veterans Amiria Rule, Emma Jensen, Linda Itunu and Casey Robertson had multiple titles to their names.

Fiona Coghlan's Irish side though was not to be underestimated. Coghlan led from the front and was ably supported in the Irish pack by the likes of Gillian Bourke, Marie Louise Reilly and Claire Molloy. A dangerous Irish back-three included tenacious full back Niamh Briggs and wings Ashleigh Baxter and Alison Miller.

Ireland started the game the stronger, but the Black Ferns took the lead from a Brazier penalty. Shortly afterwards, a break by Brazier sent Selica Winiata over the try line to give New Zealand an 8-0 lead.

Undeterred Ireland maintained their forward pressure until Heather O'Brien forced the ball over. Briggs converted to close the gap to 8-7 at half-time.

After the interval another Brazier penalty stretched New Zealand's led to 11-7 but, uncharacteristically, the Black Ferns were making little progress from open play. Instead, it was Ireland who scored the next try. A sensational run from Briggs allowed Miller to go over and make the score 12-11, extended to 14-11 after a touchline conversion from Briggs.

Demonstrating fine resolve, the Black Ferns clawed their way level with a third Brazier penalty with fifteen minutes left on the clock. But it was Briggs who would have the final say, capping an extraordinary performance with a match winning penalty in the 70th minute.

Ten nervous minutes followed but the Irish pack were able to see out the match. Coghlan's side had arguably pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament's history.

The result meant that Ireland only needed to defeat Kazakhstan to reach the semi-finals while New Zealand were dependent on results elsewhere. Ireland duly defeated Kazakhstan 40-5, while a draw in Pool C between England and Canada meant that New Zealand would not progress from the pool stages for the first time in their history.

The Black Ferns were gracious in defeat, with coach Brian Evans saying, 'we are very disappointed but fair play to Ireland. They outmuscled us, they forced errors but huge congratulations to them for that.'

By contrast the Irish were jubilant, 'It's absolutely wonderful to win against the world champions. Tonight we'll go out and enjoy a beer, then tomorrow we'll start getting ready again…' said captain Coghlan.