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'There's a gap there already and if we continue to let it grow, there will be no catching up'

Former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan wants to see better pathways put in place in the women’s game.

Former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan.
Former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

THE MOST EXCITING aspect of Ireland’s commanding 45-0 win against Wales last weekend was the fact that is was a performance driven by youth. 

In the backline, 19-year-old Beibhinn Parsons stole the show with her first-half brace of tries, the first of which was a stunning solo effort which displayed her incredible power and speed. Looking at the forwards, 20-year-old backrow Dorothy Wall was equally impressive getting through some of less glamorous work, with 23 carries and a number of important contributions without the ball.

The dynamic young duo are exactly the type of players a coach can look to build a team around. 

Former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan is enthused by the standard of young player coming through at the moment, but warns that more needs to be done if Ireland are to keep in touch with the game’s true heavyweights.

“To be honest, I see a better quality of player coming through now,” says Coghlan, who retired in 2014.

“Players that have come from the minis, up through the youths and then into the senior team… It’s just the athleticism of them and the skill base they have. A lot of players in my era only started playing when we went to college in our early 20s.

“But in saying that, the other countries are forging ahead as well. There’s a gap there already and if we continue to let that gap grow, there will be no catching up with the likes of England and New Zealand, or indeed France.

“It’s how do we close that gap as quickly as possible, and I think the key to it is getting more of those younger players that have the skillset, the athleticism and the understanding of the game through the pathways as quickly as possible.”

dorothy-wall Dorothy Wall was one of Ireland's stand-out performers against Wales. Source: Robbie Stephenson/INPHO

Coghlan points to the prevalence of GAA clubs around the country compared to the much lower availability of women’s rugby clubs, as well as the lack of women’s rugby programmes at many secondary schools. Irish rugby is not just missing out on athletes at underage level, it’s not even given them the option.

There are issues facing those higher up the ladder too, and Coghlan believes some of the more encouraging developments happening in the women’s game will force the IRFU to take a serious look at the idea of professionalism.

The recently announced WXV competition offers Ireland an opportunity to play more regular games against quality opposition, but it will also increase the demands placed on those in the squad.

For a start, Ireland will need to continually finish in the top three of the Six Nations in order to qualify for the WXV 1 tier. The competition will also require Ireland’s amatuer players to dedicate more time and effort to the cause.

For even the most committed of athletes, there is bound to be a breaking point.

“You know, we are going to have to talk about professionalism at some point down the line with the WXV competition, as players are going to need more time off work,” Coghlan continues.

“It will just not be feasible to compete unless we do look at it.

I feel a bit bad talking about professionalism at the moment when the IRFU have such losses and people are losing their jobs, but it is probably a conversation that should have happened pre-Covid, but it will certainly have to happen in years to come if we are to be competitive at all.”

Coghlan was speaking to help launch Guinness’ new ‘Never Settle’ campaign, which aims to make rugby a more inclusive and accessible game.

Naturally, the conversation moves towards the problem of visibility. While there is no shortage of coverage when Ireland are playing – particularly given this year’s standalone Six Nations – exposure is more limited outside of the international windows.

“I think in the next few years, because of the WXV we will see more year-round rugby at international level, but I think it’s important to hit below the international level as well, because some young girls might not watch them on TV and they certainly don’t read newspapers and things like that.

“So it’s important they are exposed in their community as well and similarly online with the younger population to try and engage them.

“Like, if you look at Beibhinn, she’s from Ballinasloe. They’re not a heavy hitter in Irish rugby. Likewise with Dorothy, Fethard, I didn’t even know that they had rugby clubs until these girls burst onto the scene.

“So it is important to tie it back to that local stuff as well.”

As has tended to be the case this week, any topic surrounding women’s rugby manages to wind it’s way back to Parsons, the most exciting Irish player in a generation.

Given her work with the Navy Blue sports agency, Coghlan knows the value in a star, and details why something as simple as Parsons’ commercial appeal can be so important for the growth of the game.

“Brian O’Driscioll was huge in that respect for the IRFU in the men’s game in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, and they marketed it a lot around him and his skills,” Coghlan explains.

“There are so many girls in the team, yes they are young, but like Linda (Djougang) for example, poor front-rows never get the exposure, but she is a nurse on the frontline and her background story is so interesting. There are so many people with interesting stories that fans will engage with if it’s put on the correct platform.

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“And they want to tell their stories as well. They want that by-in from the fans.” 

beibhinn-parsons-takes-on-lisa-neumann Parsons scored two first-half tries in Cardiff. Source: Robbie Stephenson/INPHO

More performances like last week will go a long way to keeping the wider public engaged, especially if Parsons can continue to rip defences apart in such devastating fashion. 

With Parsons, nobody is trying to play down the hype. 

“First of all, physically as a 16-year-old she was ready to step up to international rugby, and that in itself is huge. She had the athletic capabilities, but it’s more than that.

“It’s that work ethic and wanting to be the best she can be, and then obviously that genetic, freakishly athletic ability.

“She’s not just out there finishing. She’s looking for work, you saw her in the tight, you saw her coming in off the lineout. Defensively she wasn’t challenged at the weekend, but she is a hard worker.

“She understands the game and is keen to understand it even more, If you listen to her, she’s very mature for a 19-year-old, but she knows where she’s at. She knows she needs to continue to improve, but I think it’s that work ethic and that desire to be the best that she can be.

“No doubt she’ll be kept very grounded by the squad, she’s probably getting roasted for doing so much media during the week, but that’s all part of it.”

Fiona Coghlan was speaking at the launch of Guinness’ ‘Never Settle’ campaign, which plans to tackle the lack of visibility for women’s sport and specifically representation of women in rugby by expanding the profiles of women’s rugby. 

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Ciarán Kennedy

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