Ireland Women win the Six Nations
irishrugby.ie and James Mortimer 11 Mar 2013 Getty Images
Having claimed their maiden Triple Crown last month, the Ireland Women swept past France in the second half to earn their fourth straight win and move a step closer to Championship silverware.
An England victory today ruined Italy's hopes of challenging for the title when they host Ireland in Milan tomorrow week, so Philip Doyle's side now enjoy an unassailable four-point lead at the top of the table ahead of France, England and Italy (all on four points).
Ireland will be hoping to round off the Six Nations in style and make it a St. Patrick's Day to remember by defeating Italy in Parabiago to complete a famous Grand Slam.
Ireland's previous best finish in the Women's RBS 6 Nations was third, the position they had finished in for the past four years. Three wins was their best tally from a single Championship before this year.
It is the first time neither England or France have been crowned champions since Scotland won the 1998 Championship. The English have dominated the competition in recent years, winning seven successive Six Nations titles including six Grand Slams.
Whatever happens next weekend, 2013 will go down in the record books as the Ireland Women's best ever season at international level with Six Nations success and qualification for the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup achieved with great aplomb.
Benefiting from top class coaching and strength and conditioning support, Fiona Coghlan and her team-mates have really kicked on in the current campaign and the fruits of their labour can be seen on the pitch.
Along the way there was the milestone first victory over England and they won for only the second time against the French last night, making it six wins on the trot at their Ashbourne fortress.
Back-three colleagues Alison Miller (5 tries) and Niamh Briggs (3 tries, 37 points) have been the scoring stars in the Championship, with the ever inspirational Lynne Cantwell, captain Coghlan and Joy Neville providing plenty of experience in key roles.
The quick-witted Nora Stapleton and Larissa Muldoon have emerged as first choice half-backs with Jenny Murphy and Ashleigh Baxter adding further pace and strength to the back-line.
Front rowers Gillian Bourke and Ailis Egan have scored crucial tries during the campaign, hooker Bourke grabbing the match winner in the opening match against Wales and tighthead Egan touched down in an important second half spell against France.
Second rows Sophie Spence and Marie Louise Reilly have been a tower of strength in set piece and open play, while there is a brilliant blend of guile and grunt in the back row combination of Siobhan Fleming, Sevens captain Claire Molloy and number 8 Neville.
When the squad came together for the Six Nations, Doyle and his coaching staff worked with a 34-strong panel.
Players such as Ulster's Stacey Lea-Kennedy, Munster's Fiona Hayes and Exiles duo Lauren Day and Leigh Dargan, along with the classy Niamh Kavanagh, Laura Guest, Amy Davis and Grace Davitt, have all made important contributions off the bench.
In a real breakthrough year for Irish women's rugby, a number of the Six Nations winners will be involved when Ireland make their debut in the IRB Women's Sevens World Series later this month.
Jon Skurr's charges will take part in the Guangzhou Women's Sevens tournament in China (March 30-31), using it as part of their preparations for the Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow in June.