At lunchtime today, shortly after the Ministers responsible for sport announced a funding package for Rugby of €18 million as part of an overall €80 million for Sport post-Covid, a letter dropped into their mailboxes which will have gone off like a bomb.

It came from a group of 62 current and former Irish internationals who have “sadly lost all trust and confidence in the IRFU and its leadership after historic failings.”

It calls on the Ministers for “support now to enable meaningful change for all levels of the women’s game in Ireland from grassroots to green shirts.

The language in the letter paints a picture of ‘plans in disarray’, ‘missed targets’ and a lack of faith in the two major reviews of the Women’s game that are currently underway.

They have called on the Ministers to ‘intervene in these processes to make them genuinely transparent and meaningful.’

Powerful

This has obviously been a long time in the making and the list of signatories is a powerful one.

The Chair of the Sport Ireland Women’s Sport Committee, Lynne Cantwell, and the recently retired Captain of the National Team Ciara Griffin are the first two names, and they are followed by Fiona Coghlan, Claire Molloy, Michelle Claffey, Lyndsey Peat, Sene Naoupu, Leah Lyons, Jenny Murphy Eimear Considine, Hannah Tyrell and Linda Djougang. It is easier to list the leading figures in Women’s Rugby over the past half a decade that are not on the list. They are few.

This is a serious challenge to the leadership of the IRFU at a time when Philip Browne is stepping down from the role of CEO. In that sense, it may be easier to make progress politically than would have been the case a year ago.

The IRFU has not reacted yet and neither have the Ministers, at time of writing, but the explosion has gone off now and the early stages of picking through the damage and finding a start point to rebuild will be crucial.

As of this afternoon, none of the signatories have come out to add to what was said. That is a smart move even if it will be tempting to say more.

Ultimately this letter was not written to start a row but to build a better future.

Not Enough

The kind of words that have been spoken of taking on board the reviews and acting accordingly will clearly not be enough for those who have come out so strongly.

“We have tried to work constructively with the IRFU for decades and much of the same problems persist,” says the letter drawing to a conclusion.

“Many of us have been part of previous attempts via private intervention to work constructively with the IRFU to help them to understand how the players have felt over many years and to support them to make changes which would create the right environment for women’s rugby at all levels to thrive. These have failed and so we feel we have to resort to requesting your help and to publishing this letter.”

There is a lot at stake in terms of getting this right. Ladies Gaelic Football, Camogie and Women’s Soccer are thriving at present and present a high profile and attractive alternative path into sport for young girls and women.

Rugby cannot afford to be seen as less attractive because of failings in leadership. The support base for the sport in the men’s game, at provincial level and for the international side is increasingly more balanced in gender terms but that could also be fragile if there was a sense of institutional lack of gender parity.

We are aware of many initiatives taking place within the support that are positive but there is clearly a deficit in how they have been implemented in the eyes of those who are on the front line of playing the game. You can only stand shoulder to shoulder with those you trust to be on your side and this is clearly a problem that needs to resolved with a fresh approach.

There is time. The Ministers will not want to get involved in a personal or a departmental capacity unless it is as an absolute last resort.

They will call on both sides to come together, sit down and construct a plan for the future that is better than the ones which have gone before.

It will likely happen in the initial days of a new IRFU CEO and with the April Six Nations tournament looming large on the horizon. There will also be a new CEO at Sport Ireland who may be called upon to help broker peace.

 

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