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Dublin: 19 °C Saturday 21 September, 2019
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Ireland Women striving to make sporting role models a not-so-rare commodity for girls

Women’s sport needs high-profile events to spark interest for girls at a stage when, statistically, they’re dropping out.

SEEING IS BELIEVING.

In encouraging boys and girls to take up sport, any sport, the sight of an Ireland team on the world stage in a prime time slot can be a powerful inspiration.

That is precisely what the Women’s Rugby World Cup will deliver in the three weeks ahead. However this Ireland team are working not so much that each of their footsteps can be followed, but so the next generation of talent can skip up a much easier, more straightforward route to the top.

Research this week revealed that one in two girls will give up sport by the time they are 13. 76% of women involved in the survey commissioned by Lidl cited a lack of encouragement as a factor in their giving up sport.

A quick glance in and around Tom Tierney’s 28-strong squad for this month’s World Cup throws up numerous examples of how encouragement and access are the ultimate determining factor in how and why participants take up a particular sport. To get them that far however, most of the team’s senior figures point not to a female sporting icon of their youth, but to family and peer influence.

By remaining active in sport at a time when many more women step away, they stayed in contention for international rugby without knowing it, without even having an oval ball to hand. Then, in their college years or mid-20s the all-important elements, access and encouragement, entered the fray to allow a pathway to form.

Out-half Nora Stapleton was a talented inter-county football player – and indeed lined up against injured captain Niamh Briggs – until she was invited first to play tag and then to join Old Belvedere. Second rows Sophie Spence and Maz Reilly put their height to use in netball and as a centre back in association football respectively.

There are many more examples. Pick a name. But consider the resources rugby and every sport could work with and choose from if the drop-off rate were halved. If those 13-year-old girls had a friend who wasn’t ready to give up on a game, if they had seen something that made them want to persist.

***

Alison Miller stands in a courtyard of the GPO, a place most synonymous with Irish heroism,  she chats and chats in engaging and excited tones, but before long there is an audience. Her captain and fellow back three star Briggs is the face adorning An Post’s new stamp, but a small group standing no taller than four-feet-tall is waiting patiently for an autograph.

“It’s great that you can inspire younger generations,” Miller says, flattered, but without a trace of embarrassment or burden that many sportspeople can see in outside factors.

“When I was growing up, there wasn’t a huge amount of women’s role models.”

Alison Miller Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Yet Miller is one of those who did have a sporting idol outside of her GAA-soaked family. Before she went to claim two schools level national titles in the 400m hurdles, Miller was enthralled by the greatness of Sonia O’Sullivan, who just so happened to be winning World and European golds and Olympic silvers while Miller was at an age that today’s figures show girls walking away.

“I was at the Morton Games there to see her daughter run! She was always my role model and to see her perform at Europeans, world and Olympic level. She performed at the highest level continuously.

She doesn’t get the credit she deserves, I think she is our all-time best athlete of any sport we’ve had in this country.”

Outside of rugby, Miller is on the way to becoming a history and PE teacher, a reassuringly front-line place for someone with her passion for sport and a symbol of how far you can you reach.

The Laois woman – christened the Ballickmoyler bomber by team-mate Jenny Murphy – has a talkative streak that draws relentless abuse from some in the squad. When #MillerStories appears on Twitter or Instagram, you know the wing is regaling the group in conversation. But the wisdom she imparts is well worth listening to.

Miller will forever sit on the showreel of Irish women’s rugby having sprinted away and touched down a try to push Ireland towards a first ever international win over New Zealand. Then, just as she has done numerous times in two codes of rugby, the former sprinter showed off the value of running mechanics picked up in athletics as she tilted past scrum-half Emma Jensen and maintained enough speed to beat Kelly Brazier to the try-line.

It wasn’t until she returned to Ireland, after losses to England and France, that Miller properly grasped the resonance the win and her try had created in Ireland as offices stood to watch screens and non-rugby fans found themselves unable to escape the joyous news.

Alison Miller scores a try Miller scores the famous try that paved the way for Ireland to beat the Black Ferns, defending champions at World Cup 2014. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Because you’re immersed in a bubble, it was only when I got home I realised people were telling me ‘we were all watching it, everyone was!’

“To think that’s increased the amount of girls playing rugby, playing sport and that people who weren’t necessarily in to rugby became interested in rugby through that…”

As women’s rugby players, now hopefully children and girls can see us out there playing for Ireland and we’ll hopefully be an inspiration for them. In a year’s time, you never know what way the women’s team could be. Could there be professional team? Could they make a living out of it? You don’t know.

“Hopefully we’re inspiring them to take up the game and have fun first and foremost and enjoy it and be fit and healthy most importantly.”

***

This team has come too far to shy away from the trail they’ve blazed.

“We all know we’re role models to somebody out there,” says Stapleton, a development officer with the IRFU who is well aware of the manifold approaches to building a vibrant sporting scene.

“At the start we probably didn’t believe that, but from winning the Grand Slam  in 2013, the World Cup and since then we’ve seen the growth of girls rugby around the country.

“Boys and girls, young and old; People come to matches, they want selfies, photographs and that’s fairly new now. The crowds are definitely getting bigger.

Lindsay Peat and Nora Stapleton Stapleton with prop Lindsay Peat, another former GAA star, in training last weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s real important for us that we get to be those role models and try to inspire anyone at all to pick up a rugby ball.”

If that sounds like way more pressure than the average sportsperson ought to have to deal with, it’s hard to argue the point, but these players are utterly cognisant of the bigger picture of women’s sport beyond just their own team room. They embrace the responsibility and allow it to fuel them.

“There’s obviously a responsibility for us to be able to go out and understand that if we can be successful it will inspire a generation coming behind us,” said captain Briggs before injury ended her third World Cup before it began.

“Girls that went before us have done that for us. There’s definitely a sense of responsibility or accountability. We’re delighted to be hosting the tournament, but we’re very aware of the responsibility it brings.

It’s not really pressure. Every time you go out and play for Ireland, no matter what sport it is, there’s always going to be a pressure, it’s important we embrace that and don’t run away from it.

I don’t think it’s a burden that we understand and know where we are and what we’re doing.

“It’s important that we just go and play and enjoy it. Because if we do that we’ll definitely be successful.”

On so many fronts.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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