Women’s Rugby – Where to Next?

The past 48 hours have not been the finest for Women’s Rugby in Ireland.  It is such a shame after the enormous positive mood of only two months ago on the eve of hosting our first ever Rugby World Cup.

We had packed grounds in Dublin and Belfast, a playing squad as familiar to the public as has ever been the case, and a real sense that international momentum behind women’s right to parity of esteem in sport was being nurtured and grown here in Ireland.

But let’s pause a moment.  That positivity remains in place.  In the current year the IRFU has invested €2.1 million in Women’s Rugby, aside altogether from the costs of hosting the Rugby World Cup.

There is good stuff being done at a certain level but why then was Tuesday’s announcement that the Ireland Managers job was to be downgraded to a part-time role on a short-term contract such a ‘kick in the teeth’ in the words of Ireland international Jenny Murphy.

Culture and Organisation

The answer lies beyond the brighter lights of the international environment and goes deeper into the culture and organisation of the game at the levels needed to bring players through to that level.

The Women’s Rugby team fell short of expectation in August but when you look at the limited player base from which the squad was drawn, perhaps it was that expectation was unrealistic in the first place.

Yes, we came fourth in France only three years earlier. Yes, we had won Championships and a Grand Slam in the Six Nations. Yes, we were seeing the game broadcast live to hundreds of thousands of viewers but where were the players going to come from that would succeed that golden generation?

Women’s club rugby is growing.  The World Cup Trophy Tour energised communities and clubs to cater for the number of girls that wanted to play but enthusiasm can only bring you so far.

Ladies Gaelic Football

There is a model for girls sport in the Ladies Gaelic Football Association that is delivering across the board at every level.

It starts in clubs, moves through age grade competition that gradually becomes more intense but that always caters for all the levels of engagement and talent.

There are few age grade structures in place yet for girls rugby.

There are development squads bringing the players that shine at U14, U16 and U18 together with better coaching, better players around them and better friendships and relationships formed that feed into the sense of a wider network.

There are few developmental structures in place yet for girls rugby.

The manager’s position is in many ways a distraction from this more substantive debate and yet being released as it was and without an explanation that a deeper review was underway or in motion lifted the lid on frustrations felt throughout the game.

Perception

In the modern era perception is a reality.  That’s not a universally accepted fact but in such a fast-moving world of glances and half-formed thoughts, opinions become fact faster than ever before and Women’s Rugby has been damaged by the perception that the IRFU does not care.

We would suggest that is not the case, but ask at the same time does it care enough? And is it willing to make the Women’s game a priority to a greater extent?

Throughout the build up to the World Cup sponsors Aon were proud of the fact that they were supporting a team of leaders.  They brought them into workplaces to talk about the lessons gained on the field of play and how that could motivate greater performance in other areas of life.

What would their view be this morning of the perception now that in fact, the Women’s game was looking somewhat adrift?

The team the new part-time manager will take over goes back into camp next week but has no Autumn internationals planned, and will go into the 2018 Six Nations less prepared than in recent years and a long way behind rivals like England and France.  That should not and should never have been the case.

Good People

There are very good people within the IRFU and within the sport as a whole who can change the script that is currently being passed around social media and public debate.

Organisations like PwC recognise diversity.  They have supported the Women’s Gaelic Players Association and their Managing Partner Fergal O’Rourke is a big player within the IRFU.  He is a leader who likes to do so from the front.  He is close to new IRFU President Philip Orr and between them they have the energy and the capacity to get people motivated to make this right.

Padraig Slattery has been a key player in the Rugby World Cup bid team that is close to pulling off a wonderful result for Irish sport and for Irish Rugby.  His Teneo company employs strong women including Sene Naopua, part of the Sevens and the Fifteen’s teams.  His advice on perception would be invaluable and I have no doubt given willingly.

From within, Garret Tubridy is a man who delivered on the World Cup and has a knowledge of the Women’s Game at every level to pick up and drive a greater sense of planning and purpose than looks as if it is the case at present.

And Anthony Eddy, the Director of Women’s Rugby has the willingness to make things work if all the pieces of the jigsaw can be brought together.

Sport for Business is willing to play a part in helping that happen as well.

But let’s pause again.  All those we have mentioned are Men, as was Tom Tierney whose stepping down from the manager’s position brought about this spiral.

Women with the SkillSets

Fiona Coghlan is a leader from the field who has carried that through off the field as well.  Anne O’Leary is CEO of Vodafone, the primary partner of Irish Rugby and as astute a problem solver as you are likely to come across in any field.

Racheal Ingle at Aon has seen at close quarters what Women’s Rugby is capable of.

Gemma Bell manages the sponsorship of Bank of Ireland with Leinster, Munster and Ulster Rugby and brings a sharp business mind to making that partnership work at every level.

Michelle Tanner at Trinity, Suzanne Bailey at UCD and Sinead McNulty at DIT are all responsible for Women’s programmes and Men’s programmes and would have knowledge and insight on how the two can complement rather than compete.

All or none of these might be available but until we ask we will not know.  The art of progress is in seeing a problem, thinking how it can be addressed and taking action in small, then larger steps to do just that.

Peace in Northern Ireland was achieved through a process. We went to the moon less than ten years after saying it was a dream.

Surely to God creating a better long-term and sustainable future for Women’s Rugby in Ireland should not be more intractable than those issues.

Surely to God the worst thing we could do was not to try.

 

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Image Credits: Inpho / Billy Stickland

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