North West women Nora Stapleton and Larissa Muldoon will be pivotal players for Ireland on Thursday night as the girls in green face France for a place in the World Cup semi-finals.
The Donegal duo have already proved influential figures in Ireland’s women’s rugby World Cup campaign, making significant contributions to two wins for the hosts in their first two group games.
Muldoon sniped over for Ireland’s first touchdown of the tournament against Australia last Wednesday, with Fahan native Stapleton adding the extras and also converting her side’s second try.
She couldn’t land her third conversion attempt from the touchdown but the two successful strikes earlier were enough to secure Ireland a 19-17 victory over the Rio Olympics sevens champions who are ranked sixth in the world in this form of rugby.
Stapleton’s superb place-kicking continued in Sunday evening’s second group game against emerging Japan when Ireland fought back from a nightmare first half to score 24 unanswered points after going into the interval 14-0 down.
The swarming Japanese proved an unexpectedly challenging handful for an Irish side missing a number of front-liners, including Muldoon, who were being rested ahead of the crunch clash with the French just four days later.
However an influx of forward replacements for the second half helped turn the tide while Stapleton’s tactical kicking in the last quarter crucially kept Japan pinned back in their own territory.
That territorial platform paved the way for Alison Miller to get through for a much-needed try which Stapleton converted and the 34-year-old later drew Ireland level by again adding the extras after the team’s Six Nations skipper Paula Fitzpatrick touched down.
Ireland finally took the lead in the closing stages when Stapleton held her nerve to slot a precious penalty and she had already been announced as Player of the Match when sending the conversion of Fitzpatrick’s second try over via an upright in injury-time.
There is huge pressure on Stapleton’s shoulders with only one specialist outhalf in the squad and unexpected place-kicking responsibilities following the withdrawal just before the tournament of captain Niamh Briggs due to injury.
But she has landed six of her first seven efforts at goal to ensure Ireland avoided disastrous defeats against Australia or Japan which would effectively have ended their dream of winning the World Cup.
Ireland’s showdown with familiar foes France at UCD Bowl on Thursday evening (KO 7.45pm, RTE2/ITV4/eirSport) will determine whether the team can emulate their top four finish at the last tournament.
Back in 2014, unfancied Ireland famously upset the seemingly invincible New Zealand before being beaten by England in the semi-final and then losing the third place play-off to hosts France.
The French will go into this big game as firm favourites on the back of much more impressive performances so far which have delivered a 72-14 rout of Japan and 48-0 trouncing of Australia.
By contrast, Ireland have frustratingly lacked cohesion so far and getting another win will take more than the dogged determination and partisan support of a capacity crowd which have got them through unscathed to this point.
The established halfback pairing of Stapleton, playing in her third World Cup, and Muldoon will be restored as head coach Tom Tierney fields a full-strength side for the first time at this tournament and Ireland will need to put their best foot forward from the off.
Only a much improved performance from Ireland will suffice though what happened during the Six Nations earlier this year will hopefully prove a good omen for the girls in green.
Back in February few gave a depleted Ireland team, missing three of their sevens stars, much chance of beating the French at Donnybrook after their scratchy start to the Championship with unconvincing victories away to Scotland and Italy.
Ireland only scored the winning try against Scotland with the clock red whereas the French put 50 points on them the following week, but a fortnight later in Dublin the gallant greens came from behind to win 13-10.
Regardless of the result against France, Ireland will have two matches at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium next week with all 12 competing nations playing off for specific placings in rounds of fixtures on the Tuesday and Saturday.