Sligo eked out a four-point 24-20 victory to further secure an unassailable and maiden Connacht Womens League title.
This year’s league competition represents the first played under non-development rules and marks a major schism in the growth of womens rugby in the province and the calibre of teams playing under open grade rules.
Sligo, unbeaten in round play throughout this winter, came from behind in Dangan on Sunday fullback Jacqui Mulligan largely responsible for the visitor’s second-half resurgence with a try-scoring treble.
Sligo dealt out a 53-5 victory in the same fixture last year but were restricted by a pluckier raft of students in the opening fixture earlier this season. The 24-10 scoreline earlier this winter spoke volumes for the strides made by the weekend’s NUIG hosts and the four tries to three win sets up a clash royale should they meet in Cup competition this spring.
Lock forward Rita Breen was immense on defence, and her ground coverage across the paddock would rival most loose forwards playing AIL division one. Locking partner Grainne Donnelan was equally impressive in the tight exchanges while Edel McMahon and Lou Kelly at six and seven toiled well carrying ball.
In the backs, NUIG welcomed the return of outhalf Katie Kilbane but so long out of competitive rugby she failed to exert the influence needed to swing the tide of battle. Rhona Julian, confined to fullback and 10 on Sunday but well able to cover any number from six up, stood out. Her refusal to be taken down by anything other than armour-piercing artillery and three defenders re-asserted her reputation as college’s foremost ball threat. Her two tries came by way of dogged determination in breaking tackles and staying vertical. Kilbane scored the other, added a conversion and opened with a penalty for College’s 20 points, which would have been enough to scalp the heavily-favoured Sligo but for momentary lapses in concentration and Mulligan’s fleet-of-foot.
Flanker Edel Siney stood in for absent midfield backs throughout the first half and opening stanza of the second before replacing Hannah Smith (groin) at scrumhalf. Siney combined well with number-eight Kelly and the pair of them pushed close for the crucial final try needed to swing the balance in NUIG’s favour.
Sligo countered well repelling all efforts deep in their own territory, young outhalf Hannah Davey barking orders to her team-mates throughout the final stages.
Mulligan, the only 2012 Connacht-capped player in action during Sunday’s match showed her class in finding space down the tramlines and plundering them for all they were worth.
College meets Carrick-on-Shannon this week in Castlebar before resuming their as-yet-unbeaten run in the college league in the lead-up to the QUB-hosted intervarsities in March.
The first round Carrick match-up was a four-try bonus point win but yet again unconvincing by College’s standards leaking tries at inopportune moments. While NUIG did enough to put the game beyond Carrick’s reach they will look to exert greater dominance throughout if they are to threaten college competition heavyweights in the coming months.
By Luke O’Donnell.