Breaking boundaries and changing the game - how Ireland are defying their amateur status

It’s a huge month for the Ireland cricket team as they look to qualify for the ICC World Twenty20 with their application, hard work and determination an example of why women’s sport in this country is thriving on a largely amateur footing.

Ireland are confident of qualification in Thailand.
Ireland are confident of qualification in Thailand.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AN ONLINE PUBLICATION charting the success of some of Ireland’s most prominent female athletes was released this week. Through a series of striking images, the collection captures the very essence of sport but, most significantly, women’s sport: the sacrifices, the dedication, the dazzling highs and crushing lows.

As captivating as the images are, the final few pages of the book stand-out. It lists the achievements of each of the individual athletes and teams featured. The list is endless. It’s spread over eight pages – an illustration of this island’s rich sporting heritage but also the prominence of our female athletes in their chosen field.

Overlooked for so long, slowly but surely women’s sport is creeping further into the nation’s conscience. Female athletes are becoming public figures, their achievements are becoming increasingly appreciated and their legacy is growing.

In the foreword of Inpho photography’s ‘Changing The Game: Irish Women In Sports 2000-2015′, John Treacy writes about participation levels, narrowing the gender gap and the strategy in place to ensure this positive trend continues.

It’s an exciting, and progressive, time for women’s sport and women in sport. There are further opportunities, both on and off the field, as the levels of professionalism soar.

In a recent interview with The42, former Cork camogie star Anna Geary, who played a key role in the establishment of the Women’s Gaelic Players Association, explained the importance of exposure.

It’s an obvious ingredient for growth but it’s easier said than done. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” was Geary’s line on the value of bringing women’s sport to the public rather than vice versa.

Cricket in Ireland is the ultimate point in case. Before 2007, the sport was played by a select few and watched by even fewer. But one imposing performance on the world stage transcended the game.

Suddenly it became accessible and interest levels spiked. A new generation were inspired and the sport on this island has reaped the benefits ever since.

The Ireland women’s team are now trying to break the glass ceiling for themselves and defy their amateur status by qualifying for a second successive World Twenty20 tournament.

Clare Shillington batting Ireland featured at the last WT20 but to reach the next level, they need to measure themselves against the best. Source: Barry Chambers/INPHO

In an age of sporting opulence, amateur teams in an otherwise professional sport are few and far between and are largely powerless, with limited resources, to bridge the gap between themselves and their full-time opponents.

Indeed, Ireland were in danger of slipping into obscurity as the sport’s heavyweights implemented professional contracts. They went eight years without appearing on the world stage and progress was limited.

But feeding off the success of the men’s team, Aaron Hamilton and his squad have embraced the challenge. There is a renewed determination within the team. A determination to make their mark on the world stage, rise up the rankings and, just as significantly, grow the profile of cricket and women’s sport in Ireland.

By way of comparison, they are probably at the same stage of their development as the senior men were when they brought Pakistan to their knees at the 2007 World Cup. Their standing in the game is equally similar: rarely favourites, regularly underdogs.

The squad departed for Thailand yesterday infused with the belief and hunger which has been instilled in the organisation.

The success of the men’s team on the world stage has filtered through the ranks. The Cricket Ireland brand, as evidenced during this year’s men’s World Cup in Australia/New Zealand, is as prominent as any. Pulling on the green jersey now means so much more than solely representing your country.

“The commitment of the girls is incredible,” Hamilton, the women’s national head coach, tells The42. “For the last few months they’ve put their lives on hold. They’ve all bought into it and I don’t think any one of them have missed a training or gym session.

“Work and school must obviously come first but they’ve put everything into this and ever since I took over their dedication to the cause has been immense.”

Hamilton assumed the reins from former Ireland captain Trent Johnston in February and instantly went about creating a pathway to the next level. The inception of the domestic Super 3′s tournament provided players with the platform to hone their skills in a competitive environment.

Aaron Hamilton Aaron Hamilton has brought new ideas to the set-up and is hoping to deliver success at the first time of asking. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The structures are being put in place. Cricket Ireland are investing heavily in the women’s team and the results have started to reflect, and justify, the backing.

Since the three-game series against world champions Australia in Dublin towards the back-end of the summer, the extended panel have embarked on a relentless training schedule.

The group have been meeting for four sessions a week and were given individual programmes for the days they didn’t convene as a unit. Trying to juggle it all is a huge challenge.

“It’s been an intense couple of months,” Ciara Metcalfe says. “It’s been a complete lifestyle change for me.” The 36-year-old has only recently resumed her international career after a period on the sidelines. She’s one of a number of vastly experienced players in a squad also comprising of four members under the age of 21.

“Compared to a decade ago, the structure and organisation is so professional,” she explained. “There is a focus on fitness and conditioning and we have access to facilities and resources teams of bygone years could only dream of.

“Everything has been done to give us a chance and now it’s up to us to perform.”

The squad prepared for the make-or-break qualifying tournament with a warm weather training camp in La Manga last month. It gave the team a chance to train outdoors in heat somewhat close to what they’ll encounter in Thailand over the coming weeks.

“We’ve turned the heaters up in the gym full blast,” Hamilton continued. “The girls have been wearing layers of clothing during training to try and replicate the humidity and heat we’ll be playing in.

“It’s going to be one of the big challenges because none of them have really played in such conditions before. It will be uncomfortable initially but it’s something we have to deal with.”

The squad will arrive in Bangkok over the weekend ahead of the campaign opener on 28 November. The time between now and then will be crucial in attuning to the conditions and settling into the task.

Cricket - First Womens T20 - Ireland v Australia - YMCA Cricket Club Ciara Metcalfe bowls to Jess Jonassen during the T20 International against Australia in August. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Warm-up games against Scotland and hosts Thailand will offer Hamilton an opportunity to cast his eye over his options and for the squad to dust off any cobwebs the winter may have brought: it’s months since they’ve played a competitive game together.

Although Ireland were defeated by Australia in August, the three outings against the game’s standard bearers was an enlightening exercise, for both players and management.

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They were able to compete for large parts of the game with the Southern Stars but were unable to maintain the same level of intensity throughout the forty overs.

Unfortunately cricket is far from a level playing field. The disparity between funding, resources and pay structures from country to country is considerable. It’s the way the game is governed and the smaller nations are forced to make do with what they’re given.

So the significance of qualifying tournaments like this one cannot be understated. Opportunities to play on the global stage, against the elite, haven’t come around too often for Ireland over the last decade and they are determined to grasp their chance.

“As players we have a responsibility,” Metcalfe, who has played over 50 times for her country, explains. “We need to continue the momentum of Irish cricket and we don’t want to be left behind in the women’s game either.

“Doors are certainly opening and as individuals we’re aware of that but we’re still a little behind. Cricket Ireland have been very good to us and now it’s just a case of putting all the hard work into practise.”

Ireland are in a group alongside China, Zimbabwe and the Netherlands with the top two teams progressing to the semi-finals. The two finalists then secure a place at next year’s World Twenty20 alongside the game’s protagonists.

On paper, Ireland should have enough in their armoury to negotiate the qualifying process. They’ve players, like Metcalfe, the Joyce sisters and Clare Shillington, who have done it all before and then prodigious talents tasked with shaping the future of women’s cricket in Ireland.

But expectations can weigh heavy. Hamilton is confident the younger members of his squad will be able to deal with the burden of representing their country on the big stage.

Robyn Lewis, the daughter of former Ireland captain and rugby referee Alan, worked her way into the reckoning over the summer and has cemented her place in the squad.

“It’s a confidence thing,” she explains. “Out in La Manga we worked closely with David Young about dealing with the pressures, the tournament and any apprehension we might have.

“We’ve been given all the tools we need but every team is in the same boat. It means so much to everyone with so much at stake. Nerves will come but right now we’re all just focused on preparing the best we can for the challenges ahead.”

The opening game of Group B, at the Asian Institute of Technology Ground, has the potential to define Ireland’s qualification bid.

Victory over Netherlands would provide the platform and impetus to progress but defeat is almost unthinkable. After hours, weeks and months of toil, it’s up to Hamilton and his players to deliver when it matters most.

The build-up has been protracted but now that the tournament has arrived, Ireland finally have the chance to achieve what they set out to do when they began this process all those months ago.

“No motivation is needed,” Hamilton concluded. “The carrot of representing Ireland at a World Cup is dangling in-front of us and the girls have put everything on the line for this.

“When I arrived in Ireland my aim was to bring this group to the next level. If we can qualify for India then the first box will be ticked.”

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