Ireland's dream will become a nightmare if World Cup spot is lost
Ireland 24 Australia 36
Ireland's unravelling home World Cup went from bad to worse in Belfast yesterday with defeat to Australia leaving Tom Tierney's squad battling it out simply to finish in seventh place and qualify automatically for the next tournament in four years.
Having missed out on a spot in the semi-finals thanks to last week's loss to France in Dublin's UCD Bowl, the hosts had already failed in their lofty pre-tournament goal of a return to the last four but a convincing defeat to Australia, against a Wallaroos side they had already beaten to open the competition, has left the girls in green under pressure to even book their place for 2021.
Kicking off some three hours earlier than they would have hoped - acting as a curtain-raiser for the semi-finals rather than taking part in them - Ireland's defeat was even more comprehensive than it would have appeared to those who only heard the score when wrapping up their working day, with half of their points tally coming long after the outcome had already been decided.
While Ireland had been able to gain a foothold in the game through the rolling maul that brought their first try, their defence tallied an insurmountable number of missed tackles, the system not helped by the first-half concussions suffered by captain Claire Molloy and Jenny Murphy.
Their undoing though largely came in the game's third quarter when, starved of possession thanks to the effective Australian back-line conducted by 37-year-old out-half Ashleigh Hewson, they could not gain any traction in the game and the green and gold surged into a commanding position.
When Ireland did come back, with late tries through Sophie Spence and Paula Fitzpatrick, it was very much a case of too little, too late.
In the early stages, it had at least looked like Ireland would be capable of weathering the storm.
Visiting captain Sharni Williams had scored after just four minutes, her show and go freezing wing Louise Galvin with Sene Naoupu unable to get back in time to make the necessary tackle in the corner.
But Ireland got things back on track 10 minutes later through their maul.
First Lindsay Peat was held up over the line but, with a penalty coming, Australia were pinged again and it was a case of third time lucky as Ailis Egan was driven over the line.
And the tide seemed to be turning in Ireland's favour only minutes later when Murphy spotted space in behind and the bounce was favourable for Alison Miller to gather and streak home.
Sadly for Tierney, it was as good as it got for his Ireland team.
Murphy departed soon after, following Molloy down the tunnel after a failed HIA and just before the half-hour mark a set move off a scrum saw a clever inside ball from Williams put Sarah Riordon across the whitewash.
When Hilisha Samoa barged over from close range before half-time, the pendulum had swung decidedly in Australia's favour.
It was more of the same after the turn, the TMO awarding Millie Boyle a score after a lengthy consultation, and sevens star Mahalia Murphy put the result beyond doubt with a quarter of an hour still to play.
By the time Ireland's late resistance brought a response, the game was gone.
Saturday's clash with Wales, with a spot in the next World Cup at stake, means that once again there will be no time to lick the substantial wounds.
Ireland: H Tyrrell; L Galvin, J Murphy, S Naoupu, A Miller; N Stapleton, N Cronin; L Peat, C Moloney, A Egan; C Cooney, M Reilly; C Griffin, C Molloy (capt), P Fitzpatrick. Replacements: A Caplice (for Molloy, 8), C McLaughlin (for Murphy, 36) L Muldoon (for Cronin, 51), L Lyons (for Moloney, 51) S Pence (for Cooney, 51), I Van Staden (for Peat, 65) K Fitzhenry (for Stapleton,65), C O'Connor (for Egan, 65)
Australia: S Treherne, N Marsters, S Riordan, S Williams (capt), M Murphy; A Hewson, K Barker; L Patu, C Campbell, H Samoa; R Clough, A Hewett; M Boyle, C Butler, G Hamilton. Replacements: M Gray (for Clough, 52), E Robinson (for Campbell, 52) T Pomare (for Riordan, 65), H Ngaha, for Samoa, 66), F Hake (for Baker, 73) K Sauvao (for Murphy, 77)
Referee: Ian Tempest (Eng)