There only is one contender for this and that is, of course, the Ulster U18 Interprovincial Grand Slam in 2016.
It was nearly a tournament that passed me by, there was little advance publicity, and if the management team hadn’t contacted me directly I probably wouldn’t have covered this series at all.
As it was, I rolled up to City of Armagh on the evening of Saturday 17th September 2016 and that was me hooked. As I said at the time;
I’m pleased that the Women’s U18 management convinced me to go along to this fixture as it was a match that reaffirmed my love of rugby, played as it should be.
The professional men’s game tends to be a bit formulaic and overly reliant on the physical side of the game, however, while there were plenty of hard hits, in this match both teams concentrated on their highly polished skill sets making the ball do the work in an enthralling match.
I had the pleasure of catching up with three of the players, Neve Jones, Vicky Irwin and Brittany Hogan earlier this week to go through their thoughts on the 2016 Interpro Series in our first Zoom broadcast below.
You can read through the games below or click on the match titles to take you to the full report and full galleries for the appropriate matches.
That first match was a cracker and the commitment on the pitch made it easy to become invested. You can learn the skills and absorb the tactics but the determination of this team not to lose was the key driving force of this campaign.
There was talent all over the pitch, but the performances that caught my eye in that first game were, the perpetual motion machine, Neve Jones in the front row, the support play of Storm Cobain in the back row and a classic “chippy” outhalf performance by Vicky Irwin.
However, the jewel in the crown was the wonderfully balanced centre pairing of Leah McGoldrick and Brittany Hogan, their defence and their understanding with Irwin was far in excess of their years.
The game itself went past in a flash. Jones got the opening score in the first half and Kelly McCormill went over for the winner, with ten minutes to go, after Leinster had replied through Eimear Corri.
Game 1 done I returned home to edit my photos and cear my diary for the rest of the series.
The second game was in Athlone’s Dubarry Park as Ulster faced Connacht. The journey down was in the midst of torrential rain but things started to clear as the game progressed.
A young Lisa Mullen showcased here kicking talents with an early penalty to give Ulster the lead in a srappy first half. But a physical Connacht were up for this one and their pack worked an early try to take a 5 – 3 lead.
However, Ulster rode out the storm though the boot of Mullen and with Cobain, Sarah Whitley, Claire Boles and Emma Kearney prominent up front they worked their way into the game.
Showing expert timing up popped Jones for the crucial score on the stroke of half time to give Ulster a 10 – 5 lead going into the break, after Mullen added the extras.
Irwin came on in the second half to unleash the beast of the backline. Hogan crashed over early on before Jones got her second, after a break by Irwin. A clever try from second row Caolinn McCormack sealed the game and McGoldrick crashed over towards the end to add a touch of icing. Mulen added two conversions to complete the scoring.
Match 2 done and dusted, setting up a winner takes all match against, the also undefeated, Munster at Westmanstown the following weekend.
I think I summed it up pretty well in my review for this game.
Unsurprisingly Ulster have named their strongest starting XV with Vicky Irwin returning to the out half berth after an imposing second half performance against Connacht. Outstanding centres Leah McGoldrick and Brittany Hogan remain in place and their partnership with Irwin should provide Ulster with a definite attacking edge.
However, the back three combination of Ciara Browne, Ellie Ingram and Kelly McCormill will also cause defensive headaches for their opponents with full back Browne, in particular, impressive last week with her runs from deep.
Up front, leading try scorer, Neve Jones will continue to be the heartbeat of the team, the dynamic prop grabbing three tries already by sheer force of will. This little “Duracell Bunny” of a player really is the epitome of all action from start to finish.
Following further injuries in the second row, Storm Cobain moves from the back row to partner Caolinn McCormack with Katie Hetherington joining the back row, alongside Keelin Brady and Claire Boles. Boles gets the nod at No 8 and I suspect she and Cobain will share the ball carrying role, which they did very effectively last time out.
In the replacements I’m pleased to see the return of Bethany McDowell alongside the regulars on a strong bench.
However, at the end of the day, I suspect the outcome of this game, in what is likely to be a close match, will rest on the steely nerve and ball kicking skills of scrum half Lisa Mullen, the form kicker of the tournament so far. Bring it on.
Roared on by a typically vocal support it was Munster that enjoyed the best of the first half after taking an early lead through a penalty. It looked like they would add more but my stand out memory of the first half was a magnificent chase back from Ellie Ingram to save a certain try when all looked lost.
After playing on the back foot for most of the first half Ulster showed their mettle and perfect timing, yet again, when Claire Boles, who had an immense game, crashed over on the stroke of halftime to give Ulster a 5 – 3 lead going into the break.
Of course it was Jones who scored at the start of the second half, as Ulster started to dominate, and with Mullen adding the conversion and a penalty they moved to a 15 – 3 lead.
Munster battled back and worked a try through their pack to make it a one score game at 15 – 8, as the teams went into the final quarter but Irwin and Hogan combined for one last time for Hogan to hit the line to give Ulster a 20 – 8 win. Cue the celebrations.
There were 24 players used throughout the tournament, all of them worthy of comment and my apologies to those who’s names haven’t popped up in this review. The full squad is below.
Ulster Women U18: Ciara Browne, Kelly McCormill, Leah McGoldrick, Brittany Hogan, Lucinda Kinghan, Vikki Irwin, Carla Rafferty, Emma Kearney, Sara Whitley, Neve Jones, Natalie Kinghan, Caoilinn McCormack, Bethany McDowell, Claire Boles, Storm Cobain, Grace Shrestha, Megan Brodie, Tammy Millar, Keelin Brady, Lisa Mullen, Ellie Ingram, Dolores Hughes, Katie Hetherington, Ellie Rix,
And of course, congratulations to the management team who guided their charges through the competition.