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'There's no overnight fix for this. We've got to make the game attractive'

IRFU director of women’s and 7s rugby Anthony Eddy spoke to the media yesterday.

Ireland missed out on qualification for next year's 15s World Cup.
Ireland missed out on qualification for next year's 15s World Cup.
Image: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

YESTERDAY, THE IRFU’s director of women’s and 7s rugby, Anthony Eddy, spoke to the media for the first time since Ireland’s failure to qualify for the Women’s World Cup six weeks ago.

Eddy was appointed to his role in December 2014, just months after Ireland had reached a World Cup semi-final.

2013 had seen Ireland win a Grand Slam and they added another Six Nations title in 2015, but have regressed ever since. Next year is the first time Ireland won’t be involved in a World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1991.

Meanwhile, IRFU targets have been missed in women’s 7s rugby too, with Ireland failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and not achieving consistent top-six finishes on the World 7s Series. The Ireland 7s still hope to qualify for the 2022 Rugby World Cup.

The IRFU recently confirmed that there are two reviews underway in the women’s game.

One is specifically examining Ireland’s failure to qualify for next year’s World Cup, while the other is an “all-encompassing” review that extends right from the All-Ireland League down to the grassroots, as well as the connectivity up to high performance level of the game.

Eddy said he didn’t want to “contaminate any findings from the review” of the World Cup qualification failure by going into depth on that issue, with that process scheduled to conclude next month.

The IRFU recently confirmed that current Ireland women’s head coach Adam Griggs will step aside after the upcoming November Tests against the US and Japan, with Greg McWilliams – an assistant coach in the 2013 and 2014 successes – taking over.

Eddy said yesterday that McWilliams is “an extremely capable coach” who will have freedom to bring in his own assistant coaches.

Below is the transcript of Anthony Eddy’s briefing with journalists yesterday. 

anthony-eddy IRFU director of women's and 7s rugby, Anthony Eddy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Question: In 2013, Ireland won a Grand Slam, 2014 got to a World Cup semi-final, 2015 another Six Nations title. Why do you think Ireland aren’t now competitive to that level and have gone backwards, as it looks to my plain sight?

Eddy: “I don’t think the growth of the game has helped is one thing. A number of the other countries have progressed probably the growth of the game and the development of the competitions that they play in.

“If you look at what the RFU have done around their Premiership, it’s linked now to a number of the professional men’s clubs and everything else. That’s just in the recent four, five years and it’s paid dividends, there’s no doubt about it.

“Players are having greater access to higher-quality competition and so too in France.

“Our player depth, we go through cycles all the time to be able to have good teams and then we go through cycles where if we don’t have huge depth of talent, well we’re going to go through periods of time where we don’t have the quality of players we need.

“So we’re continuing to try and fast-track the development of some of the younger players for the future.”

Why can’t the IRFU do what the RFU have done with their league?

“It’s on the cards now, to be honest. We have continued to try and look at what the AIL provides for us and what structures can be put in place to try and make a competition more competitive than what it is at the moment.”

And has that not been a focus for the IRFU in recent years?

“It was reviewed there a while back but then Covid hit our AIL, that was changed some time ago with the inclusion of the two new teams. Now we’re seeing where that’s at at the moment.

“I think at the end of this season, we need to review that again and discuss whether that’s the way to go forward or whether some changes need to be made around what the competition is at the moment.”

Are you involved in the wider women’s rugby review that is happening at the moment?

“I haven’t been at the moment but I will be.”

You’re the director of women’s rugby, does anything stick out to you when you look at the pathway and make you think, ‘this needs to be better if we’re going to have a better depth of player quality’?

“Yeah, it does. The participation numbers and the quality of the competition are the two things that stand out for me that have to be a focus for us going forward.”

The players that are contracted to the IRFU, are they contracted to play both 15s and 7s or are they contracted to play 7s?

“They’re contracted to play 7s but it’s a women’s rugby programme so they’re playing both forms of the game all the time, which we have to do. They’re good rugby players.

“There are players there who have played more 15s than they have played 7s. I’m not going to mention any names but you know who they are yourselves. They’re contracted and they’ll play 15s more than they play 7s, some of them.”

irelands-lucy-mulhall Ireland 7s captain Lucy Mulhall moved into the 15s squad for the recent World Cup Qualifier. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

What would you say to people that suggest 7s is being favoured over the 15s game, and that the 15s has been neglected?

“That’s incorrect, to be honest with you. Both programmes have had a lot of resources from the IRFU thrown at them in recent years. There were nine fully-contracted players representing Ireland in Parma at the World Cup qualification process.

“There are three full-time IRFU staff coaching that programme with Adam and Steve [McGinnis] and Kieran [Hallett]. I don’t think either programme has been favoured. Because of our small playing numbers and small talent pool, we have to share resources across both programmes. People who think one programme is being favoured over another, I would clearly say they’re wrong.”

Do you have any concerns that balancing the two codes is potentially detracting from both?

“No, I don’t. Not at the moment because of the players that we’ve got to choose from. Also, there’s evidence there around other unions as well.

“If you look as Jasmin Joyce [of Wales], she plays both forms of the game and turned up for Wales at the weekend and was outstanding, got player of the match. Helena Rowland as well for England on the weekend is just back from 7s and everything else, those players are capable of playing both forms of the game. Portia Woodman is still running around for New Zealand, she’s a 7s player.

“I think there is still a number of nations because of the quality of players that they have, they share them across both forms of the game.”

A number of the 15s targets in the ‘Women in Action‘ plan have been missed, but also the 7s targets in terms of reaching the Olympic 7s and the top-six finishes consistently [on the World Series]. How concerned are you that those targets were missed?

“Yeah, concerned. It was disappointing, to be honest. The group of players that we have in both forms of the game are capable of achieving higher standards than what we are at the moment, so it will definitely be reviewed and there will also be something around the 7s going forward.

“Unfortunately, the 15s have missed their World Cup but the 7s have got the opportunity to qualify for a World Cup in September of 2022 so that will be a huge target moving forward and so too will the qualification around the Olympics.”

Is there any reason why you haven’t been involved in the wider review into women’s rugby? As the director of women’s rugby, I’m sure people would be curious to know.

“No, there’s no particular reason. I know at the moment that the review priority is based around the preparation and the World Cup disappointment. Around the wider review, I think it’s pretty much on hold until the World Cup is looked at first.”

Are you concerned Ireland could be left behind if you don’t contract more 15s players?

“I think we already do [have contracted 15s players]. There’s nine of those players contracted who were playing with the women’s 15s program during the World Cup qualification process.

“There were another couple in the squad, there have been previous players in the squad that went playing 15s, from Hannah Tyrrell to Sene Naoupu and other numerous players.

“We’ll look at other opportunities to contract players. There are players that are still in our programme who are on development pathways, whether it’s 7s or 15s. Some of those players will be front and centre in both forms of the game and will be utilised by Greg over the coming years as well.”

alana-mcinerney-with-maggie-mackinnon-and-niamh-byrne Railway Union and UL Bohemian are two of the top AIL clubs. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

The issues you’ve highlighted, the participation numbers and standard of the AIL, etc., they’re not overnight fixes if we’re being realistic. How long is it going to take to play catch-up to where the IRFU and Irish women’s rugby needs to be?

“I think if we got started early, we would be putting ourselves in a good position moving towards the 2025 World Cup.

“As you say, there is no overnight fix for this. We’ve got to make the game attractive and appealing to the female athletes in the country.

“This is an IRFU project that everyone has to sort of embrace and get hold of to build the participation base so we are no longer talking about 1,200 or 1,600 senior players – we are actually looking at 5,000, 6,000, 7,000, or 8,000 senior registered players.

“Unions much smaller than us have a larger player base than what we do. We have to build a base first and foremost.”

What’s your sense of the AIL at the moment? From the outside looking in, most people would say it’s pretty much a two-tier league, the top teams are competing between themselves but the gap is pretty wide to those in the bottom half. How do you go about rectifying that?

“Again, I don’t want to be pre-empting too much. We’ve got to get to the end of the season and see where we get with it, look at it again. How many players have been used by all the different clubs?

“Some of the clubs that you might say aren’t performing terribly well, they’ve still got some really good players. Ella Roberts has been taken out of Wicklow to be part of the national 15s squad as a result of her performances with her club and also through the inter-pros.

“There’s some talent out there, but we need them playing a high level of domestic competition.”

What was the thinking in Greg McWilliams not starting fresh for the two November games? Would it not have made sense to have him in there, what’s the thinking in having Adam Griggs there when he’s going to be out the door shortly after?

“We had already committed to the staff to continue through that November window and then Greg’s appointment was made after that process.

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“Greg and Adam will catch up on numerous occasions with handovers and everything else. Also, Greg was involved with another position [in World Rugby] as well, so it’s a timelines concern as much as anything else, to be honest with you.”

Just to clarify, will Greg have any involvement at all in November or will it just be watching from afar?

“It will just be observing. He will be with me over the next couple of weeks with the games and everything else but he’ll just be observing.

“He’s already been out to a number of the AIL games, he’s looking at that, a number of players he’ll be dealing with in the future. He’ll come to Dubai [for the World 7s Series leg later this month] where we’ll also have a development team with a number of the other girls for him to have a look at those players and how they perform over there.”

So Greg will be involved with the 7s as well?

“He’ll be involved in coaching both programmes, yeah, but he’s head coach of the women’s 15s.

“It’s the same, more or less, position as what Adam held.”

greg-mcwilliams-ahead-of-the-game Greg McWilliams will take over as Ireland Women head coach. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

I know you said you don’t want to muddy the review process around the World Cup Qualifier failure but what is your opinion on what went wrong? 

“They were well prepared. Knowing what the other programmes did, I think that our squad and our programme was actually a lot more advanced than what the other unions did.

“We were training and still operating through lockdowns and everything else because of what we put in place for them to try and qualify.

“I think the group probably put unnecessary… possibly because of the false starts, possibly because of the expectations, the group may have put a lot of pressure on themselves around the actual performances. And that could have affected the way they actually played.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I think that even you guys on this call would probably say that if that [Ireland] group turned around and played those teams on any other day, they’d get the results that they wanted.

“It was unfortunate to lose two games on full time with unfortunate errors that cost them two games they probably shouldn’t have lost. That’s probably it at the moment.”

Can I ask you about the episode with the changing facilities at the Women’s inter-provincial game – did the IRFU apply for ‘elite’ status [during Covid-19 restrictions] for those inter-provincial games so that players could have potentially used changing rooms?

“I don’t know, is the answer, whether they applied for elite status or not. I’m not too sure. I won’t comment because I don’t have any idea on that – what they had to do to get those games up and running.

“That was through the provinces and our own operations department as to how they put those games running.”

And what lessons have been learned within women’s rugby in Ireland based on that episode?

“Look, it’s just a lesson in rugby really. You want to be able to make sure you are providing, if you’ve got the IRFU’s name behind it, you want to make sure that you are providing appropriate facilities for anyone.

“So, lessons to be learned. Again, there was a review and some findings that came out of that were issued some time ago around what we need to have a checklist of to make sure things like that don’t happen in the future.”

Will the findings of the World Cup review be made public or is it like the men’s review in that it’s done behind closed doors?

“Probably some findings would be made public.”

__________

Following this interview, The42 contacted the IRFU to clarify whether the union had applied for elite status for the Women’s Inter-Provincial Championship. An IRFU spokesperson confirmed that had not been the case in issuing the following response:

“The IRFU have always put health and safety first. In line with our objective to protect the health and well-being of players, coaches and support staff, the IRFU applied ‘elite’ status to our professional game teams, including men’s and women’s 7s, and to our women’s international 15s, as we could operate these teams within the ‘bubble system’, which requires significant limitations to player activities and is supported by regular testing.

“While we continued to review the levels of Covid-19 mitigation for the men’s and women’s amateur game, in which the inter-pro series operates, we could not guarantee the ability to maintain the ‘bubble system’ which enabled players to safely take part in certain activities within the bubble.

“As these players have important commitments outside of sport, such demands would have placed unacceptable restrictions and inconvenience on our amateur male and female athletes, for example the inability to attend work.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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