BY CHRIS MCNULTY
NORA Stapleton was working for Bank of Ireland in Dublin in 2007 when a group of friends invited her along to play a game of tag rugby.
Stapleton at the time was on the Donegal Ladies Gaelic football panel, but it was the off-season. Always having an interest in a broad spectrum of sports she headed off to try her hand at a new game.
“I only went to play for a bit of craic, but the next thing one of the girls asked me if I’d play for Old Belvedere,” she said.
On Tuesday evening, the Fahan woman played out-half for the Ireland women’s team as they scored a truly remarkable 17-14 win over New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup in Marcoussis – a result that puts Ireland firmly in the frame to make the semi-finals with their final group game seeing them take on Kazakhstan on Saturday.
The Black Ferns were unbeaten in the competition since 1991 – before the Irish women’s team was even born. The first game for the Irish women’s team was on St Valentine’s Day 1993 and a 10-0 loss to Scotland in a game for which the players bought their own kits.
Stapleton grew up as a talented Gaelic footballer, playing with the Naomh Padraig club in Muff. She was hardly in the door of Old Belvedere when Leinster came knocking and in 2010 she made her Ireland debut in a 22-5 win against Italy.
2009 had been the first year that she ‘concentrated’ on rugby. Within a few months, she was standing to attention for Amhrán na bhFiann in Ashbourne wearing an Irish number 14 shirt.
She resisted rugby’s lure at first, but her talent suggested otherwise and when Leinster and Ireland began to take note there was no turning back – although she did venture back to Croke Park to play for Donegal in their 2010 All-Ireland Intermediate final win over Waterford.
Rugby always intrigued her. In an interview with the Donegal News last year, Stapleton remembered watching a friend, Ciaran O’Gorman, head off to play rugby.
“Girls just weren’t allowed to play rugby at that time where I was,” she said.
“I was so jealous that people were going off to play this sport that I wasn’t allowed to.”
Stapleton now works for the IRFU as Women’s/Girls Executive, looking at the development of the game in terms of participation.
In the space of about 16 months, this Irish squad has won a first ever Triple Crown and Grand Slam, played at the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham, beaten England, France and New Zealand and had three of their Six Nations games broadcast live on RTÉ Television.
Ireland defeated USA in their opening game, where Cappry woman Larissa Muldoon joined Stapleton for the closing stages having come on as a substitute. Muldoon was also a member of the Six Nations and Grand Slam winning squad of 2013.
The wins over the USA and New Zealand have Ireland topping Pool B by two points, with Kazakhstan, who have coughed up try-scoring bonus points in both of their pool games to date, their round 3 opponents on Saturday.
On Tuesday, tries from Heather O’Brien and Alison Miller saw the girls in green achieve an historic win over the four-time World Cup winners. New Zealand boasted a 20-match unbeaten World Cup run since the 1991 semi-finals and led 8-7 at half-time thanks to a Selica Winiata try against the run of play.
Kelly Brazier’s second penalty of the evening extended their advantage to 11-7, but Philip Doyle’s charges defended doggedly in a tight third quarter and Niamh Briggs countered brilliantly to create Miller’s lung-busting score on the hour mark.
Briggs followed up with a stunning conversion from the touchline and although Brazier managed to bring New Zealand level at 14-all, a final penalty from Briggs with 10 minutes left was enough to seal a stunning victory.
Stapleton was in the thick of it during a frenetic second half with a relieving clearance lifting one particular New Zealand siege. Not bad for a former Bank of Ireland employee who started off just to pass the evenings.