The row between players and administrators in Irish Women’s Rugby has exploded out of the private corridors and dressing rooms in which it has been rumbling since 2017.
Minister Catherine Martin and Minister of State Jack Chambers have been consistent in promoting the importance of Women’s sport, including as recently as two weeks ago when responding to a question posed by Sport for Business at the launch of the Sports Action Plan, Chambers said that the meeting of a target of 30 per cent gender alignment on sporting boards would be encouraged by a mix of carrot and stick over the next two years.
Now it appears as though the stick is being tapped on the table as the Ministers have called upon the IRFU to meet with them to explain the grievances the players have expressed and where this row can be resolved.
Sometimes things need to hit rock bottom before they bounce and that is the case with the Women’s game at the international level at the moment.
The failure to qualify for the 2022 Rugby World Cup is as big a failure as it would be in the Men’s game with the number of top-performing countries playing the game still at a relatively low number.
The number of young girls and women playing the sport is still less than ten per cent of the numbers registered to play with the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, the Camogie Association or the Football Association of Ireland.
In the Men’s game, the differential is closer to 3:1 so clearly, there is a lot of work to be done there at an organisational level, even taking into account the greater physicality of rugby and everything that goes around that at younger age groups.
The bonus that Ireland should have gained from hosting the World Cup in 2017 has not materialised and accepting that to be the case is an important part of how this standoff can be resolved.
The success of the Dublin Ladies Gaelic Football Team in recent years has seen a surge in registrations, with an additional 5,000 players signing up in 2021, for a total of 23,000 now currently on the books in one county alone. A similar surge is likely in Meath and every time Katie McCabe scores a goal another dream is fired in the minds of a young girl who sees football as something she wants to be a part of.
The IRFU put forward the point last night that improvements are being made at the grassroots level within Rugby as well. They have access to greater levels of data and a broader overall picture than the players would have, but they are off the pace when it comes to the emotional appeal of such a strong cohort taking such dramatic action.
If it is just a communications problem, then that needs to be resolved on both sides. The #NothingLikeIt theme behind linking all aspects of the good things in the sport into one appealing message can only succeed if it is believed and backed by the senior players that the young players look up to.
If it is deeper rooted as some of the commentaries around the edges has alluded, then now is the time to end the idea that Men’s and Women’s sport should be treated as different in importance and support. It is outdated, completely out of step with how our society should be moving, and just plain wrong in 2021.
Absolute winners and losers in any fight tend not to produce the optimum way out. Both sides need to be willing to accept that the other side has some strong feelings and to accommodate that in some way. Ultimately the end goal of a functioning pathway from youth participation to World Cups, with a strong club and provincial set up along the way needs to be the only thing at the top of the agenda for the discussions which will now have to take place.
If one side walks into the meeting grumpy and feeling as though they have been brought somewhere they shouldn’t be then we will not make progress.
Far wider differences have been healed through facilitated discussion down the years, from South Africa to Northern Ireland at the highest scale of importance, through the travails of the Olympic Council and the FAI closer to home and closer to the sport.
This won’t happen overnight, and it is unlikely to be delivered quickly enough to be delivered before Philip Browne at the IRFU and John Treacy at Sport Ireland step down at the end of the year. But it will happen because it has to and it can.
The need to shout at each other was clearly needed to bring this to a head. Now it needs the cooler heads of the morning to resolve it.
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