IRELAND wrested back its crown as the best women’s team at international level with a scintillating four-point victory over courageous Canada in the AFL International Cup Grand Final at Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
The northern hemisphere ‘Battle Royale’ was a hard but fair-spirited contest. Ireland, the competition’s inaugural champion in 2011, stormed ahead in the fourth quarter and did not look back.
Canada’s defence held its composure against the Irish aerial threat until Colleen Quinn collected a loose ball and hooked home a goal with 10 minutes to go.
"We fought to the end and we did it as a team," said Quinn, who plays for the Ulster Kookaburras. "It has been a tough couple of weeks but we always had the belief. There were a few stern words ahead of the fourth quarter – we knew we just had to move the ball and finish the job."
The perennial finalists were kept apart in the first four rounds in the competition pool games and both were unbeaten en route to this carnival’s culmination.
Each squad was carrying injured troops, but Irish spirit saw the Banshees over the line. Carol Breen, named best on ground, was the dynamo behind the comeback.
"I am so proud of Carol and the girls – we never gave up," said coach and manager, Pat Leavy, who was knocked unconscious playing for the men’s team in its penultimate match.
"We thought if we kept hitting them hard, their heads would go down, but to be fair they kept getting up and coming back at us."
The Irish attempted to play a high-pressing game from the first bounce, with a focus on settling early. But Canada’s Nicole Robertson kicked the first goal with instant reply from Maebh Moriarty, who booted it home from close range.
There has been a marked improvement in the quality of the women’s competition at this level since the two teams faced off three years ago, but it was Ireland that initiated a strong rhythm and continually took marks inside 50 – despite trailing for the first hour.
The Banshees mounted a final assault after half-time, with Linda Connolly drilling home a goal and Aisling Gillespie’s left-foot snap keeping them in touch.
Canada, which had run onto Etihad Stadium through an ‘Onwards to Victory’ banner, found the Irish blocking its path at the death.
Captain Aimee Legault, the 2014 player of the competition, looked at home roving every part of the ground and enjoyed the space not afforded her in previous rounds at Royal Park and around Victoria.
Her signature composed style and ferocious tackling – despite a serious hand injury early in the game – continually drove the Banshees back.
It was her brilliant reverse handball that left Charmelle Willis free to kick her first goal of the tournament.
"Obviously, we are disappointed but it felt pretty good to kick a goal at Etihad," Willis said.
"We’re going to get around each other because it’s been an incredible journey. We’ll be back in three years."
Tricia Rolfe, whose family – including three generations – had travelled from Canada to watch all five of the team’s games, kicked the third soon after.
"It was amazing to have my family here – they are so stoked!" said Rolfe. "I play in the back line so I was pretty happy to spoil a mark and kick a goal. I sprained my ankle so I had to try it on my left foot."
The heroic Canadian performance just fell short as The Fields of Athenry (an Irish folk ballad) rang out across Etihad Stadium. The Irish men’s team – also celebrating its third place in division one – played the role of 19th player for its all-conquering counterparts.
CANADA 1.1 3.2 3.3 3.3 (21)
IRELAND 1.0 2.0 3.0 4.1 (25)
Canada: N. Robertson, Willis, Rolfe
Ireland: Moriarty, Gillespie, Connolly, Quinn
Canada: A. Legault, Moreau, N. Roberston, Hilmi, Ennor
Ireland: Breen, Quinn, Fitzpatrick, Behan, Keating, Corrigan Duryea
Umpires: J. Burns, J. Roberston, A. Tinetti