Source: Photo Joiner

Stand-offs, world rugby awards and record-breaking crowds - women's sport in Ireland in 2017

It has been a progressive year for women’s sport in Ireland, but there were some low points.
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2017 HAS BEEN a good year for women in Irish sport, but to stretch that observation into labeling it as a great year, would only gloss over the drastic low points that happened along the way.

Former Ireland head coach Tom Tierney addressing the team during the World Cup.

Source: Dan Sheridan

‘A lot done more to do’ is an exhausted cliche that has somehow become synonymous with the conversation about women’s sport.

Indeed, the subject deserves a more nuanced evaluation, but on this occasion it seems to be the most appropriate way to summarise women’s sport in 2017.

The sporting year began with a shocking stand-off between the women’s Republic of Ireland team and the FAI, accompanied by a litany of claims about mistreatment.

And it ended with that same team recording an unexpected result against the reigning European Champions Holland in a 2019 World Cup qualifier on Dutch soil. They voiced their frustrations, their demands were met and they reached that milestone under new manager Colin Bell.

That draw against the Netherlands was Ireland’s last Group 3 game of 2017 and complimented the two previous victories against Northern Ireland and Slovakia.

The difficult period which followed on from their protest against the FAI was quite brief in the end. A few days of uncertainty about the future culminated in a successful night of mediation talks about conditions that concluded at around 3am on an April morning.

And considering that there have been no fresh complaints about the FAI from the squad, it appears that that bleak chapter is over.

Sustaining their form in 2018 to strengthen their chances of qualifying for a first major tournament is the focus of the coverage now. And that’s what the players wanted all along.

2017 was a landmark year for Ladies Gaelic Football, in which the All-Ireland finals day attracted a record-breaking crowd of 46, 286 in Croke Park.

It marked an exceptional increase of almost 12,000 spectators compared to the 2016 deciders. The occasion also recorded the highest attendance figure of all the finals of women’s sporting events this year.

The crowd number at the All-Ireland triple header of Junior, Intermediate and Senior finals has been improving steadily over the past number of years. Just over 31,000 people attended the 2015 finals, and almost 34,500 fans turned out for the games in 2016.

But this year’s jump was more noticeable than ever.

Croke Park officials were required to open the upper tiers of the stands for this year’s event, and TG4 — who normally broadcast from the Cusack Stand on All-Ireland Ladies finals — were able to bring their cameras over to the Hogan Stand to cover the game.

Dublin’s journey to winning the senior final that day was later captured in the excellent GAA documentary ‘Blues Sisters’ on RTÉ, which offered a compelling insight into Dublin’s preparations throughout the season.

The volume of people at GAA headquarters on All-Ireland final day suggested something of a shift in the level of interest in the sport.

TG4 GAA commentator Brian Tyers who was on duty that day, spoke to The42 earlier this year about the occasion.

“It was certainly exceptional and you could sense it on the day,” he said.

“They’re really exciting days, the standard is really high. But something I thought was interesting when I was talking to (former Cork footballer) Juliet Murphy afterwards who had sampled this many times as a player.

“She was sitting up in the commentary box but she said she could definitely sense a completely different atmosphere. Any time there was an important twist in the match, you’d hear the surge of just excitement from the crowd.

And it felt like a real crowd, or a championship crowd that you might get for a men’s match or any match.

2017 also saw Ladies Gaelic Football players attract interest from a professional sport, with one of the greatest ever Ladies GAA players signing for AFL side Greater Western Giants.

The club previously confirmed to The42 that they were interested in looking at Mayo legend Cora Staunton, and the deal was officially announced towards the end of October.

Her county teammate Sarah Rowe has also been heavily linked with a move to Australia, and she revealed to The42 that she would be interested in giving it a try.

“I haven’t made any decisions, but I would be definitely, really considering it, like,” she said at the time.

But while the profile of Ladies Gaelic Football is increasing, camogie is lagging behind in that regard. 20, 438 spectators attended the All-Ireland finals day this year, which is the biggest crowd since 2009, and the fifth biggest in the history of the sport.

Cork’s victory over rivals Kilkenny wasn’t a stellar watch, but the achievement saw Rena Buckley collect an incredible 18th All-Ireland medal.

Source: James Crombie

That being said, it is still some 26,000 shy of what turned out for the Ladies Football finals.

The LGFA has established a commercial alliance with Lidl, which resulted in an investment of €1.5 million in Ladies Gaelic Football at the beginning of 2016 over a three-year period. The Camogie association may need to pursue a similar project in order to bridge the gap on the LGFA.

The Ireland Women’s team did not have the 2017 that was envisaged for them. A world cup on home soil was billed to be a tournament where they could progress to the latter stages of the competition.

But the high hopes failed to come to fruition, and by the end of the year, the IRFU had advertised for a new head coach on a part-time basis with a six-month contract.

Their 2014 World Cup campaign yielded a fourth-placed finish, and they won four out of their five outings in the Six Nations Championship this year.

But after earning wins against Australia and Japan in the early stages of the World Cup, Ireland’s tournament prospects unraveled, starting with a heavy defeat to France.

They eventually finished up in eighth place after losing to Wales in Kingspan Stadium, and head coach Tom Tierney stepped down shortly after.

The aadvertisement of the new position was greeted with outrage by some of the players, given the description of the new job, and New Zealander Adam Griggs was later selected to take up the role.

His deal will run until the end of the 2018 Six Nations, and what he can achieve with the team in that short space of time will be a key area of interest in the new year.

On a more positive note, former Ireland rugby player and prominent referee Joy Neville was named the winner of the 2017 World Rugby Referee of the Year.

It was a remarkable year for the Limerick native, in which she became one of the first female referees to take charge of a men’s international game. She was also the first woman to take charge of a European professional club fixture.

We lost some great sporting talents to retirement in 2018. MMA fighter Aisling Daly – the first Irish woman to compete in the UFC — was forced to retire from the sport back in January, due to an abnormality which showed up in a brain scan. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Emma Byrne retired after 23 year’s as Republic of Ireland’s number one towards the end of the summer.

A number of the women’s rugby team called time on their international careers shortly after the World Cup and Sophie Spence also joined that group earlier this month. The announcement of her retirement came just over two hours after Griggs named the 38-strong group for the Six Nations.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect a perfect year for women’s sport to come along. Sport by its very nature will always carry a certain amount of imperfections.

But hoping for more improvements, particularly for the women’s rugby team, is a reasonable wish for 2018.

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