The final Celtic Challenge 2023-24 standings will record the Wolfhounds as comfortable champions, leading home runners-up Edinburgh Rugby by seven points. But there was a moment in the pair’s penultimate match when the title was anything but assured.

With less than five minutes remaining at Hive Stadium on 17 February, the Wolfhounds – who had gone into the play-offs with a perfect 25 points from five regular season matches – trailed their hosts by 14 points.

Edinburgh appeared to be on course for the bonus-point victory that would have taken them a point clear of their Irish visitors with both teams facing one last game against the Clovers.

“The [play-off] game against Edinburgh was a really hard-fought one,” Wolfhounds captain Molly Boyne told World Rugby.

It was also a result that Boyne and her team-mates refused to give up on. With less than 200 seconds left on the clock, replacement prop Linda Djougang burrowed over from close range to give the pace-setters hope.

Crucially, the ball was touched down close to the posts, allowing Nicole Marlow to add the relatively straightforward conversion. It meant that when Katie Corrigan streaked away in the final minute to score her ninth try of a breakout campaign Marlow was able to level the scores with the final kick of the match.

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The rescue act kept the Wolfhounds top of the standings and although there were a certain amount of nerves heading into derby week, any doubts over the destination of the title were quickly extinguished at Kingspan Stadium seven days later.

Playing on home soil, the Wolfhounds – drawn from players from Irish provinces Leinster and Ulster – ran in seven tries, including a hat-trick for Corrigan, to seal the championship in style, beating their rivals 47-26.

“Coming back in the last five minutes [against Edinburgh] was amazing for us,” Boyne said.

“It gave us the opportunity to dig deep and go and do it at home, which was brilliant. I think it was all the more sweeter to be able to do it with friends and family around, which might not have been the case the week before.

“So, I think everything happened as it should have, and it panned out really well for us.”

Wolfhounds coach Neill Alcorn added: “Being from Ulster, to win at Ulster was a nice touch as well.

“But I think the big thing was that you could see afterwards all the supporters were there watching; family, friends and it was really lovely to see.”

Competition for places

It meant that Alcorn, Boyne and the rest of the Wolfhounds players and staff could watch on as champions as the second Celtic Challenge came to its conclusion in Llanelli last weekend.

There was still time for more drama at Parc y Scarlets, though, as Rhona Lloyd’s late try secured a draw for Edinburgh against the Clovers and Sioned Harries signed off from her playing career with a try and drop goal in Brython Thunder’s 30-5 defeat of fellow Welsh side Gwalia Lightning.

At the end of the expanded six-team tournament, however, there was no doubting who the star turns had been.

Their draw against Edinburgh was the only blot on an otherwise perfect campaign for the Wolfhounds, who amassed 238 points and six try-scoring bonus points en route to the title.

For Alcorn and Boyne, the secret to their success came from the competition for places within the squad.

“I think one of the big things that we talked about from the very start was everyone would be involved in some capacity,” Alcorn said.

“We tried to use the wolfhound as a theme and being a collective pack. We didn't have the same team week in week out, there wasn't once where the team was the same, which kind of showed in the training.

“We really tried to use our week wisely, what we tried to get out of our Monday session and our Wednesday session, and we made it really competitive throughout the week no matter what.

“We said, ‘look, every Monday your position is up for grabs’. So, everyone brought that kind of intensity and to be fair to the players, they made it a real pack mentality, real family orientated.

“And everyone knew their job and system and we had a lot of clarity stuff around it as well. But I think the main thing that came from it was a lot of players buying in.

“The players bought into it really well and that's down to Molly leading it with a few others. Molly really set a good example of how it should be done, and it was a really good process.”

Successful pathway

One of those players who took their opportunity to shine over the course of the Celtic Challenge was Corrigan.

The teenage winger didn’t appear in either of the Wolfhounds’ opening two matches but finished the tournament with 12 tries and a place in the Ireland squad preparing for the Guinness Women’s Six Nations.

“I was with Katie at Ireland under-18s a couple of years ago, so I’ve kind of been on her path a little bit,” Alcorn said.

“In Ireland, we have a women's national talent squad and there's just so many of those players that are now coming through. So, if you look at the first Clovers game and the last Clovers game, the difference in the teams is massive, and the amount of players that are able to play Ireland under-20s this summer in the last team is massive.

“And that's why I think the Celtic Challenge has been such a success for us. We're giving players an opportunity to play at a higher level that they wouldn't have had.

“Both Katie [and Katie Whelan] are an example of how they've got opportunities and how they've taken them.”

Boyne got her first taste of the Celtic Challenge as part of the Combined Provinces side that won the inaugural title and was a non-playing member of Ireland’s 2023 Women’s Six Nations squad.

The number eight will turn 34 next month but watching the likes of Corrigan and Whelan earn call-ups to Scott Bemand’s squad has only strengthened her hopes of earning a first test cap.

“There’s a huge amount to be learned from them as well. You know, they've been coming through systems and learning things and picking up skills and just bringing a very exciting energy and buzz around the team,” Boyne said.

“As Pop (Alcorn) said, it's amazing for us older bunch to be able to mix in with them and, you know, listen to music in the gym and have chats and things and it's really exciting.

“I'm very proud of the girls who are in the squad and it just kind of gives you a boost of energy that, you know, the work that they've put in over the last couple of weeks and couple of years has really stood to them and even for me going forward, you’ve got to stick with it and keep going.”