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Professionalism, attendance and equality: Should Ireland take a leaf out of France's book?

‘Over there, It’s not seen that it’s women playing – it’s just rugby.’

FIONA COGHLAN IS someone who’s seen it all when it comes to Ireland women’s rugby.

Fiona Coghlan Fiona Coghlan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

She’s experienced both the incredible highs and gut-wrenching lows.

Looking back through her career in the green jersey, you can essentially map out the formidable rise of the national side, step by step.

She was there in 2008, as the women went under the IRFU banner. From there, she saw drastic improvement but there were still dark days, many of which were unheard of and went under the radar.

But then came the glory years, the days which were shouted about from the rooftops. She captained her side to that remarkable Grand Slam title in 2013, and then onto the World Cup in 2014 where they became the first Irish side ever to beat New Zealand.

With these achievements came much more — a high performance environment, more camps, a paid coach, increased recognition and media coverage and more money for the women’s game.

As she says herself, things have “skyrocketed”. The standard has gone “off the charts.”

But the set-ups elsewhere have become even more advanced. Take France and England for example, the fifteens game in both countries has turned professional.

However much Coghlan would love to see it happen in Ireland, she doesn’t feel that it’s feasible at the minute anyway.

“I think it’s really easy to say ‘oh it should be professional’,” she tells The42 following the #SupportHerSport conference earlier this week. “There’s way more to it.

“People have to look at things outside of that. Our number base is still too low. We need more numbers playing that the standard of the game keeps rising and that people are really challenging for positions on teams.

“Who’s going to fund it? That’s a huge thing. It’s easy to say ‘oh, the IRFU have money’, but they do put a lot back into grassroots, they are trying to keep the provinces going, and they are trying to keep the national team at the standard that they’re at. They’re the ones that generate the money.

Fiona Coghlan lifts the cup Coghlan captained Ireland to Grand Slam glory in 2013. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The men’s game is driving the women’s game at the minute, financially. I think the women’s game has to start looking at itself.”

It was a topic of conversation during the panel discussion also.

Coghlan, appearing alongside Annalise Murphy, Natalya Coyle and Mags D’Arcy, was questioned on the subject by a member of the audience, to which she emphasised her opinion in favour of professionalism.

“It’s definitely something that needs to be looked at. If you want to stay at that pace, and be with the top teams in the world, you have to compete on every front.

I don’t see professionalism in the next couple of years, but in saying that, I didn’t see a women’s World Cup in Ireland either, so you never know.

“I’d love to see it. I think it’ll bring more opportunities, it gives another option for women in sport that they can see it as a career. I think it’s a far bit off though, and I don’t think there’s enough money in the game yet to sustain it.”

Coghlan has one viable solution when it comes to generating money anyway — get more people out to games.

Ireland’s last Six Nations fixture saw nearly 4,000 people turn out to watch Tom Tierney’s side beat France in Donnybrook, but attendance at women’s sporting events across the board is an area for concern.

The statistics launched by Liberty Insurance show that three in four people have not attended a major female sporting event in the last year.

“It was brilliant [attendance in Donnybrook]. But if we’re comparing that to France, I know it’s a bigger country, but they bring it to a town which is smaller than Dublin and they have 15,000 people there.

They’re selling out stadiums of 15,000 and we’re not even selling out Donnybrook.

“We have to get more people out to games, that’s generating its own income, that it’s covering its own costs.

“We saw it in the stats today. Why is this churn off? What is it? Because the ticket price is really accessible. It annoys me, some of my friends ask ‘oh can you get me tickets for the game?’ and I say ‘what game?’ ‘The men’s game.’

It’s just like ‘no, go out and support the women’s team. What’s the difference?’

Another statistic that caught the eye was the fact that TV viewership for male v female rugby in the past year was 41% versus 13%.

Fiona Coghlan celebrates after the game Ireland historically beat the New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Each of Ireland’s Six Nations matches this year have been shown live on RTÉ, a huge boost for the women’s game. The national broadcaster have also announced that they will show all of Ireland’s games during this summer’s World Cup.

It’s a stark contrast to the situation overseas though.

In France, they have bidding wars for women’s games. It’s a crazy difference. Over there in France, it’s just rugby. It’s not seen that it’s women playing, it’s just rugby.

“We have to change our value of women in sport if we want to see change and impact.

“You don’t play the sport to be on TV, that’s not what it’s about. But it helps to get more people in, and that’s ultimately what you want. You want to get more people into the game, playing so standards continue to rise and you’re challenging to compete with the best in the world. Media helps that, and that’s what we need the media for.

“I always struggle that you have one chance to make an impression with women’s sport. Our Grand Slam game [in 2013] was not a good game of rugby by any stretch of the imagination, but it had people captivated.

“We had one chance then to show it, and some people might have just switched that off because it wasn’t a good game. Whereas with the men’s game they’ll say ‘oh, it wasn’t a good game’ but they’ll tune in again next week.

“With women’s sport it just seems that you have that one opportunity, and if you don’t grab it then it’s another fight again.”

The women’s side have found themselves getting more and more publicity over the past few weeks. Three players – Hannah Tyrrell, Sene Naoupu and Alison Miller — were pulled from the 15-a-side squad during a Six Nations week, and named to travel to Las Vegas for the World Sevens Series.

The IRFU came under fire for the decision, particularly in this, a World Cup year.

Coghlan clearly respects the union, but feels that the manner in which the action was carried out may not have been favourable.

“To me, fundamentally, it wasn’t so much that those three girls went. It was just the idea that you could slot people in and out.

Natalya Coyle, Fiona Coghlan, Annalise Murphy and Mags D'Arcy Mags D'Arcy, Fiona Coghlan, Annalise Murphy and Natalya Coyle launching the Liberty Insurance 'A Game of Two Halves' research. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I know it’s all one programme, but fundamentally, it’s not really one programme when those girls hadn’t consistently been training with each other. It makes things a little bit disjointed.

I do agree that depth is needed, but it’s just how you do it. It’s not the fact that they’re blooding new people, it’s just how you do it.

“But from my point of view and being on a team, to have people going and coming back is really disjointed. I suppose that was probably one of our strengths over the past couple of years — a core group of players, with a bit of fresh blood coming in and out. It wasn’t completely new, like ‘who’s going to be playing this week?’

“That brings a level of uncertainty to players as well, if they’re not sure where they stand in the whole scheme of things.”

There is plenty of time until the World Cup though, she insists.

Ireland is set to take centre stage and welcome the world in August, as the host nation of the tournament.

“Maybe I mightn’t have retired if I knew the World Cup was coming,” Coughlan smiles as she addresses the audience during the discussion.

She’s laughing, but you can tell that she’s half serious as Joanne Cantwell reassures her that the girls would only love to have her back.

The Dubliner is playing a bit of club football to fill the void at the minute, but it’s not the same. Rugby will always have her heart.

“Ah look,” she shrugs, as she tells The42 afterwards. “I don’t know. Ifs, buts, maybes.

“It was probably the right time. It was the end of a cycle. Could I have lasted three more years? The way I’m playing gaelic football? No I doubt it,” the 36-year-old laughs.

“It’s brilliant to see a World Cup here though. To have a tournament of that standard in Ireland, for young girls of any sport to come out and see.

“People [need to] get out and support it, because how often do we get events of that standard here? So get out and get the bums on the seats.”

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Emma Duffy

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