Coghlan: ‘We believed we could do it’

With the historic encounter between Ireland and New Zealand at Rugby World Cup 2014 streaming live on Sunday, we asked captain Fiona Coghlan to share her memories of that day.

Ireland had never faced New Zealand in a women’s test match prior to the teams’ historic meeting at Rugby World Cup 2014.

That anomaly ensured captain Fiona Coghlan and her squad were faced with a question to ponder ahead of the Pool B match in Marcoussis, on the outskirts of Paris: How would they face the Haka?

Coghlan gathered the players to discuss their options but admits “it wasn’t even a conversation”. In the end she told her team-mates: “We’ll just stand there and respect it because we’re not going to waste energy doing anything else. Just focus on ourselves.”

A small moment perhaps, but one that encapsulated the belief and determination of a team that would become the first wearing Irish colours, at any level, to beat New Zealand.

Coghlan will be among those tuning in at 16:00 (BST) on Sunday when Ireland’s famous 17-14 victory will be streamed on the Rugby World Cup Facebook page and World Rugby YouTube channel.

The 39-year-old may not have watched it back for a few years, but her memory of the events in France remain as clear as ever.

Ireland had targeted a top-four finish prior to RWC 2014 and had opened their tournament with a 23-17 win against the USA, a team seeded higher than them.

“That USA win was really important,” Coghlan told World Rugby. “Obviously you have to win every game and if you get off to a bad start, you know, it just doesn’t set you up well at all for the tournament.”

‘We were just ready to go'

Ireland knew that the Black Ferns would present a bigger challenge. The four-time defending champions had not tasted defeat on the RWC stage since the inaugural event in 1991 and warmed up for the Irish with a 79-5 win against Kazakhstan, their 20th successive tournament victory.

However, Ireland coach Philip Doyle and his players had worked tirelessly on a game plan for the tournament that they believed would carry them to the semi-finals, and hopefully beyond.

“It was something that everyone within the squad felt was within us, that we were able to do it and implement it,” Coghlan added.

“We spoke an awful lot about our fitness and [from] the 60-minute mark we felt that we were fitter than New Zealand and if we could be still in the game at 60 minutes we could close it out strongly, even though they proved that they could score from anywhere and against the run of play. 

“But there was a confidence in the effort and the work that we put in in pre-season and going into the competition that we were in a really good place.”

Having arrived at Marcoussis, Coghlan led her team out for their warm-up to be met by vociferous support and a swathe of Irish flags.

It was the first time that Ireland had come face-to-face with the Black Ferns, but Coghlan remembers “there was a real intensity” about those in green.

“There was a calmness as well amongst the squad,” she added. “We were just ready to go.”

Tania Rosser led Ireland out on the occasion of her 50th cap, against the country of her birth, but Coghlan would soon be called on to offer a rallying cry.

Ireland had started the game strongly, but despite spending much of the opening quarter in the New Zealand 22 it was the Black Ferns who struck first.

Kelly Brazier had slotted a 22nd-minute penalty before full-back Selica Winiata crossed for the game’s first try four minutes later. 

“That try really came against the run of play in the sense that we’d been so dominant,” Coghlan recalled.

“I knew that we had it in us, that if we went back into their 22 we actually had to come away with something this time, and that’s what we did do.”

Ireland pressure pays off

With less than seven minutes of the first half remaining, Ireland got the reward for their pressure as number eight Heather O’Brien tapped the ball against the bottom of the left-hand post.

Niamh Briggs added the conversion to pull her side within one point at half-time but, as expected, the Black Ferns began the second half quickly and another Brazier penalty gave the defending champions a four-point cushion.

The defining moment of the match would arrive as the game approached the hour mark, the moment that Ireland’s players had spoken so much about in the build-up to the game.

At first glance, Alison Miller’s superb try appears to be opportunistic – the speedy winger in the right place at the right time to finish off a scintillating break from Briggs. But, according to Coghlan, it was straight from the training pitch. “Our back three had noticed that sometimes there was a laziness in their kick-chase. 

“The try came from, I suppose, a disconnect in their kick-chase and Briggsy spotted a gap and went for it.”

Brazier did her best to deny Ireland with an attempted last-ditch, try-saving tackle and Miller admits that she had doubts about whether she would make it to the line. 

“At the time, I knew I was tying up because I’d probably run about 200 metres before that going back and forth over the pitch,” she said in 2017. “My memory was thinking that I wasn’t going to get to the line because I was fading.”

Briggs’ touchline conversion was almost as impressive as the break which set Miller on her way to the line, and although Brazier kicked a third penalty to tie the scores at 14-14 with 15 minutes to go, Ireland were not to be denied.

Creating history

It was full-back Briggs who stepped up again to nudge Ireland three points ahead. A nervous 10 minutes followed for those in green, but, despite a couple of scares, they were able to see out a famous victory.

“I didn’t actually realise the impact of it at the time and you’re only into the second game of a tournament,” Coghlan admitted.

“I very much was like, ‘No, we have to step on, we don’t have too much time to enjoy it’. Goose [coach Doyle] afterwards was saying, ‘You’ve got to enjoy the moment’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, but we’ve got another game in four days’ time!’ 

“But when I got back to our team room and turned on the phone and realised the impact that it made and the number of people that were watching it and getting messages from people that you hadn’t heard from in years or wouldn’t expect to hear from, that’s when it really hit home for me the impact that it made outside of our squad. 

“Obviously we believed we could do it, but I think everyone else was kind of shocked that we did it.”

Hampered by injuries picked up in their opening two matches, Ireland’s RWC hopes would ultimately end with a 40-7 defeat to England in the semi-finals. But the squad will always be remembered as the first Irish team to beat New Zealand.

“I’m hugely proud,” Coghlan added. “No matter if I don’t see the squad for a number of years, we’ll always have that connection that we did something special and that’s a really nice thing. 

“I can’t wait to look back at the game on Sunday to be honest with you.”