Ireland Women captain Nichola Fryday plays in England. Akito Iwamoto/INPHO
Rocky Road

Contracts are not a cure-all for Irish women's rugby but this is a start

Irish women’s rugby has been on a rocky road for some time and there remains uncertainty.

THE DEVIL IS always in the detail when it comes to press releases.

When the IRFU announced in August that the union would be bringing in up to 43 contracts for women’s rugby, the news was greeted with plenty of excitement among fans, but those within the game looked a little closer.

Nowhere was the word ‘professional’ mentioned. Instead, it was laid out that these are to be “centralised, paid” contracts with the IRFU. It was also flagged that the deals would “range up” to €30,000, with match fees and bonuses on top.

Many people missed those details amidst the optimism, but Ireland’s players and other people invested in the game could see that the measure wasn’t going to instantly cure all of Irish women’s rugby’s issues. These contracts are not a panacea.

It’s important to note that Irish women’s 7s players have been on contracts for a few years now, although their maximum earning power was €18,000. The expanded number of IRFU contracts this season includes 7s players again, with some of them set to also play 15s again.

But the intention of the IRFU has also been to contract players who focus solely on 15s rugby. It remains to be seen just how many of the Ireland Women’s 15s squad have been convinced to come on board.

Yesterday, IRFU performance director David Nucifora said that 29 players had signed up, but that number obviously includes all of the 7s players who were already contracted to the union before now. 

Nucifora stated that only eight players had turned offers down, although other sources suggest that the number is higher.

The reality is that some in the Ireland squad didn’t even want contracts brought in at this stage. IRFU CEO Kevin Potts mentioned in March that some Ireland players were “uncomfortable” with an independent report’s recommendation that the IRFU should consider contracts. Potts said some Ireland players wanted that bit omitted.

beibhinn-parsons-celebrates-after-the-game Beibhinn Parsons was already on a dual 7s/15s contract. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Those players were keen to see everything else sorted out first, including some certainty over the state of the domestic game. The women’s AIL remains an unbalanced competition and some Ireland internationals don’t see it as the best place for them to improve. We have seen several of them head to England in order to play more competitive rugby.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora pointed out yesterday that players in England earn between €3,000 and €10,000 but that somewhat missed the point.

Several of the England-based players have turned down offers from the IRFU. It’s not really about the money, it’s about the quality of the set-ups they’re part of in England and the competitiveness of the Premier 15s, the best domestic league in women’s rugby.

It’s believed that Ireland captain Nichola Fryday may be one of the players who has opted against taking up an IRFU contract in order to stay with Exeter. If that’s confirmed, it would be telling.

Some of the Irish players based in England look home and see a misaligned domestic game. The new Celtic Cup that Nucifora announced yesterday is certainly exciting but that may take a few years to really get going.

For a start this season, one Irish team will play against Welsh and Scottish sides in a short competition window in January and February. It’s worth remembering that the best Scottish and Welsh players are nearly all based in England, so it seems unlikely that the new Irish side will be tested at the level on offer in the Premier 15s.

Nucifora underlined yesterday that the IRFU sees the All-Ireland League as a place for development players, not the elite ones. That will have raised eyebrows in a few AIL clubs, who are also concerned by the fact that all contracted players will be required to train full-time at the IRFU’s high performance centre in Dublin.

And it still remains uncertain where exactly the four provincial teams – Munster, Leinster, Ulster, and Connacht – fit into the picture.

The plan for the Celtic Cup is positive. If it ends up with four good Irish teams competing against full-strength Welsh and Scottish sides, that would be great. There has been talk of a European Cup coming into play as soon as 2024 and any exposure for Irish teams to the French and English would be fantastic.

the-ireland-team-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Ireland will play in the new WXV competition next year. Akito Iwamoto / INPHO Akito Iwamoto / INPHO / INPHO

The new international WXV competition kicks off in the autumn of next year, so really the entire Irish women’s rugby calendar is up in the air. Nucifora outlined a loose season plan yesterday but there are some holes there that Ireland players would love to see clarified.

And herein lies the point – there’s plenty of road ahead in all of this, including the contracts. This was never going to be an overnight game-changer.

It’s unclear what some people were expecting. It was simply never going to be the case that every Irish player offered a contract was going to accept it. Those with good careers would be foolish to pack that in and take the huge punt of playing rugby full-time for very little pay.

The IRFU certainly could have made it more financially attractive for players but this is simply the first step, just like men’s rugby back in the mid-1990s. It seems a little unrealistic to expect the IRFU to go straight in all-guns-blazing with big contracts.

Women’s rugby players in England, France, New Zealand, and elsewhere are not earning vast amounts. The IRFU contracts stack up relatively well with the rest of the world.  

“It’s not perfect but it’s going to give people options,” admitted Nucifora of the IRFU’s financial offering.

The women’s game has a very long way to go in increasing its commercial viability. The global signs are encouraging and the sport is growing rapidly, so the hope is that player salaries will make quick progress too.

Irish women’s rugby has been on a rocky road for some time and there remains uncertainty about what lies around the bend, but there has to be optimism that contracts for some 15s players can make the journey a little smoother from here on.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel