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'Untrustworthy leadership' - Irish players write to government to express loss of faith in IRFU

A group of 62 current and former players have come together to signal their discontent.

A LARGE GROUP of current and former Irish women’s rugby players have written to the Irish government to express their loss of all trust and confidence in the IRFU.

The 62-strong group of influential figures includes Ireland legends like Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell, Claire Molloy and Alison Miller, as well as recently retired Ireland captain Ciara Griffin, and leading current internationals such as Cliodhna Moloney, Sene Naoupu, Linda Djougang, and Eimear Considine.

In a letter obtained by The42, they have called on the Minister of State for Sport, Jack Chambers, and Minister for Sport, Catherine Martin, to intervene with the IRFU in the hope of seeing “multiple cycles of substandard commitment from the union” ended once and for all.

The strongly-worded letter to the Ministers calls for their oversight of the IRFU’s two ongoing reviews into women’s rugby in order to ensure that the “findings are transparent and to help ensure that they maintain their independence.”

Furthermore, the group of “deeply discouraged” players say the IRFU has provided “inequitable and untrustworthy leadership” of women’s rugby for too long, as well as a lack of transparency in the governance and operation of the game. 

These players’ hope is that this large-scale and unprecedented collective movement will result in genuine and meaningful change at all levels of the women’s game, allowing Ireland to become a leading nation on the global stage and enjoy a healthier domestic game.

It is a hugely significant move by the biggest names in Irish women’s rugby and one that will see the IRFU come under intense scrutiny and pressure after years of decline in the women’s game. For currently active international players to rally against the union is particularly remarkable, while there are several totemic figures among the former internationals involved.

fiona-coghlan-celebrates-after-the-game Former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan is part of the group. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In September, Ireland failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup but the national team has steadily regressed since the highs of a Grand Slam in 2013, a World Cup semi-final in 2014, and a Six Nations title in 2015. The period of decline since then has included Ireland being knocked out in the pool stages of their home World Cup in 2017.

IRFU director of women’s and 7s rugby Anthony Eddy recently drew widespread wrath for the media briefing he gave in the wake of the World Cup qualification failure. Eddy came on board in 2014 along with IRFU performance director David Nucifora and they have overseen a period in which the union has missed many high-level targets in the women’s game.

Eddy’s briefing was the latest in a string of off-the-pitch controversies in women’s rugby, including the high-profile fiasco around changing facilities at Energia Park before Women’s Inter-Provincial games in September.

The IRFU previously sparked anger by advertising the Ireland Women head coach’s job as a part-time role in 2019, while they were also criticised for sending three Ireland players on 7s duty during the 15s Six Nations campaign the same year.

The current and former players who have now written to the Department of Sport believe issues in the women’s are not a recent development but have long existed, pointing out that they “have tried to work constructively with the IRFU for decades and much of the same problems persist.”

In October, the IRFU confirmed that it had launched an independent review into Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, with consultant Amanda Bennett, a former Wales international, leading that review.

The IRFU also announced a “separate, broader structural review” into the women’s game, focusing on the union’s own 2018 ‘Women in Rugby Action Plan,’ with IRFU committee members involved but Bennett conducting all interviews and fieldwork.

IRFU CEO Philip Browne later confirmed that neither review would be made public, but rather that the union would continue its longstanding policy of releasing only “key findings” in media briefings.

In their letter to the Sports Ministers, the group of Irish players declare that they “have no faith” that these reviews will result in any meaningful change or improvement, which is why they have asked for intervention on the Irish government’s part to ensure the reviews are “genuinely transparent.”

anthony-eddy IRFU director of women's rugby Anthony Eddy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The letter also outlines that a large group of current Ireland internationals have collectively submitted a separate, detailed overview to feed into the IRFU’s World Cup Qualifier review.

The42 understands that this overview expresses discontent with how players have been treated within Ireland camp over recent years, outlining an apparent lack of respect.

It’s believed this overview has also been shared with the Ministers for Sport.

This powerful move is likely to cause major strife for the IRFU, and the group of Irish women’s players have expressed their hope that meaningful change will allow the sport in this country to ride the current wave of growth that is being experienced at the grassroots – a positive development that is identified within the letter.

Absent from the list of 62 players who have added their voices to this movement are female players currently contracted to the IRFU to play 7s rugby or who work with the union in any other capacity, for obvious reasons, but it’s understood that they were all made aware of the letter being sent to the Ministers for Sport last Friday.

Among the current internationals to add their names to the letter were Moloney, Naoupu, Djougang, Considine, Sam Monaghan, Kathryn Dane, Laura Sheehan, Lauren Delany, Ailsa Hughes, Anna Caplice, Nichola Fryday, Leah Lyons, and many more.

The group of ex-Ireland internationals includes the very recently retired captain Griffin, as well as stars of the 2014 Ireland team like Cantwell, Coghlan, Miller, Molloy, Jenny Murphy, Grace Davitt, Marie Louise Reilly, and many more.

Essentially, it is a list of the highest achievers in Irish women’s rugby, lending this letter to the Irish government huge weight.

The full list of players is as follows: Ciara Griffin, Lynne Cantwell, Fiona Coghlan, Grace Davitt, Laura Guest, Paula Fitzpatrick, Mairead Kelly, Jackie Shiels, Claire Molloy, Lauren Day, Alison Miller, Marie Louise Reilly, Stacey Lea Kennedy, Gillian Bourke, Heather O’Brien, Deirdre O’Brien, Shannon Houston, Ruth O’Reilly, Nikki Caughey,  Jenny Murphy,  Ailis Egan, Orla Fitzsimons, Sharon Lynch, Siobhan Fleming, Sarah Mimnagh, Mairead Coyne, Fiona Reidy, Nicole Fowley, Ilse Van Staden, Cliodhna Moloney, Lindsay Peat, Ciara Cooney, Leah Lyons, Chloe Pearse, Nichola Fryday, Sene Naoupu, Ailsa Hughes, Anna Caplice, Louise Galvin, Laura Feely, Edel McMahon, Michelle Claffey, Aoife McDermott, Laura Sheehan, Lauren Delany, Emma Hooban, Ellen Murphy, Anne-Marie O’Hora, Kathryn Dane, Judy Bobbett, Neve Jones, Katie O’Dwyer, Aoife Doyle, Hannah O’Connor, Eimear Considine, Victoria Dabonovich O’Mahony, Shannon Touhy, Kathryn Buggy, Sam Monaghan, Hannah Tyrrell, Linda Djougang, Jeanette Feighery.

The IRFU and the Department of Sport have not yet responded to The42‘s requests for comment at the time of publishing.

__________

The letter from the 62 current and former Irish women’s rugby players to the Sports Ministers in full reads as follows:

“Dear Ministers,

“We write to you as a deeply discouraged group of current and former Irish women’s rugby players having sadly lost all trust and confidence in the IRFU and its leadership after historic failings.

“The aim of this letter is to seek your support now to enable meaningful change for all levels of the women’s game in Ireland from grassroots to green shirts.

“We write in the wake of a series of recent disappointments for the international team, on and off the field, but ultimately recent events simply reflect multiple cycles of substandard commitment from the union, inequitable and untrustworthy leadership, a lack of transparency in the governance and operation of the women’s game both domestically and at international level, and an overall total lack of ambition about what it could achieve.

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“In 2014, the Irish XV team finished the season ranked fourth in the world, having won a Six Nations Grand Slam the year before. This triggered the beginning of a new World Cup cycle and new leadership within Irish rugby with David Nucifora and Anthony Eddy overseeing the women’s programme. The end of this cycle ended in bitter disappointment as the team finished eighth in their home World Cup in 2017, crashing out in the pool stages.

“In response, the IRFU produced an action plan for the game with a number of high level targets. However we find ourselves at the end of 2021 with those plans in disarray and with a large majority of those targets missed, including the XV team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup and the sevens team’s failure to qualify for the Olympics.

“Notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic, these facts represent significant failure. This is not just a recent issue. At the end of every World Cup cycle in the Irish women’s game, there has been a review. None of these reviews have ever been made public, with the IRFU cherry picking a handful of findings to present to the public.

“Many of us have felt that the range of stakeholders asked to take part in these reviews have not always reliably represented the game well enough to capture accurate, independent data and insight – neither do all of us feel fully confident that the information submitted has been factual and designed to act in the best interest of the women’s game.

“There are now two ongoing reviews – one into the failure to qualify for the World Cup, and a second looking at the implementation of the current ‘Women in Rugby Action Plan’ which was due to run till 2023 and which covers all aspects of the game across Ireland.

“Despite there being well-qualified independent leads running these, we have no faith that in the end that these will do anything significantly different to all those which have gone before and therefore the overarching objective of this letter is to ask for your help to intervene in these processes to make them genuinely transparent and meaningful.

“A large group of current players, including some who have recently retired, have collectively submitted a more detailed overview for the World Cup Qualifier review, which we are happy to privately share with you.

“This gives greater context to some of the current disillusionment but there is a wider and historic element to all of this and that is why we are asking for your support with the following.

- We ask that you meet with the IRFU to confirm appropriate guarantees of meaningful change so the women’s game can move forward positively.
- We ask that you request oversight of the ongoing reviews; help guarantee the findings are transparent and help ensure that they maintain their independence.
- We ask for your support in gaining assurances that both the findings and the recommendations of these reviews will be made fully available to the players and that relevant details and full recommendations are published publicly and following that, that leadership with the necessary authority and appropriate governance is put in place alongside a serious action plan and new targets to help move the game forward.

“Unresolved, the many challenges facing the women’s game at all levels have the potential to have a significant knock-on effect not just at the top end but also on the grassroots game. There are increasing numbers of young girls taking up rugby across Ireland but the IRFU’s failure to create meaningful pathways significantly impacts the quality of the system and structures these community players are experiencing.

“All of this is happening at a time when women’s rugby around the world is on a massive upward trajectory. Playing numbers, TV audiences, crowds and investments are on the rise but we fear Ireland will be left further and further behind and the opportunity for growth will disappear at a time when surely we ought to be promoting as many sporting opportunities for women and girls across the country as possible.

“We appreciate that your roles oversee all sport across the country and these are specific
issues, but we have tried to work constructively with the IRFU for decades and much of the same problems persist.

“Many of us have been part of previous attempts via private intervention to work constructively with the IRFU to help them to understand how the players have felt over many years and to support them to make changes which would create the right environment for women’s rugby at all levels to thrive. These have failed and so we feel we have to resort to requesting your help and to publishing this letter.

“We want to make clear that a small number of current players who either work for the IRFU or have playing contracts with them were not asked to sign this letter, for obvious reasons.

“We have always believed that with the right structures, processes and support that Ireland could become a leading women’s rugby nation, providing opportunities for everyone at all levels, and even with all of the recent challenges, we are certain that with your support we can come out of this better and stronger.

“We thank you for your ongoing support.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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