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Former Irish international 'encouraged' by Women in Rugby plan but cautious about 'ambitious targets'

Ruth O’Reilly says that the IRFU must ‘hit the ground running’ with its implementation of this plan.

FORMER IRISH INTERNATIONAL Ruth O’Reilly says the IRFU’s new ‘Women in Rugby’ plan is ‘hugely encouraging’ but adds that she feels some of the targets are ‘massively ambitious.’

Niamh Briggs and Ruth O'Reilly with the mascot during the national anthem Ruth O'Reilly standing alongside Niamh Briggs during the 2015 Six Nations. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The IRFU announced a new action plan for 2018 to 2023 this week, as a key part of their overall strategic plan for rugby in the country over the next five years.

O’Reilly, who retired from international duty after sustaining an injury at the 2017 World Cup, told The42 that she is enthused by the overall plan and how it aims to place a more central focus on the women’s game.

“At first read, it’s hugely encouraging, particularly the women in rugby part of things. But what I’m most encouraged about is how it’s integrated into the overall strategy for Irish rugby for the foreseeable future.

That’s where we want to see the women’s game; not as an afterthought but as an integral part of the overall strategy.

“I think it’s a hugely ambitious strategy, both the whole IRFU strategy and the women’s strategy, it’s massively ambitious but it’s admirable that they’re showing that ambition.”

20 has become a significant number in relation to women’s sport following the recent launch of the 20×20 initiative which aims to grow involvement in female sport by 20% by the end of 2020. 

Ciara Griffin leads out her team Ireland captain Ciara Griffin leading out the team during the 2018 Six Nations. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The IRFU has followed that up by incorporating the number 20 in its ‘Women in Rugby’ plan. By 2023, the union aims to count the female representation in rugby in Ireland at a minimum of 20% — including players, coaches, referees, volunteers and committees.

Women In Rugby A breakdown of some of the targets in the 'Women In Rugby' plan.

To put that into context, this means increasing the number of currently active female players from 1,341 to 5,000, and adding over 270 female coaches to the current crop of 179.

O’Reilly notes that such objectives won’t be achieved ‘overnight’ and stresses the importance of having a ‘clear execution plan’ in order to get reach their goals.

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“I think it’s massively ambitious and it’s going to take a huge amount of effort. You could nitpick a little bit in that there seems to be a slight lack of the practical execution of how this might happen.

That’s where the proof will have to remain to be seen as to whether they can execute on these. 20% is a massive jump and if I was looking at that in terms of my own targets, to make a jump of that level, I’d be worried. 

“And this isn’t going to happen overnight. This is going until 2023. In terms of the women in rugby part of it, what I have found previously from strategic plans from the IRFU, there has been a lot of backloading on it.

“The plan was always there but it wasn’t until we got to the tail end of the impending deadline that we saw a lot of the action happening. 

I think they need to hit the ground running on the back of this launch and we’ve got to see some action and really see the evidence of these initiatives being rolled out.”

From her reading of the document, O’Reilly identified a focus on the sevens programme ‘across the strategic plan for men and women.’ 

Again, she cautions that some of the targets in this area are ‘very ambitious,’ and wonders if they are ‘going to be to the detriment of the other [15's] code.’

She also worries about the ‘sustainable high-performance’ All-Ireland League the IRFU hopes to implement in this new plan. She’s concerned about what it will mean for clubs outside of the Dublin area.

Paula Fitzpatrick celebrates scoring a try Ireland celebrate scoring a try against Scotland earlier this year. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We have to be careful that we maintain a good geographical spread in that All-Ireland League. There is a massive concentration of very strong players in Dublin. 

“I would be a little bit concerned that the initiatives that I have seen around developing more ambitious coaching strategies that you have a higher accreditation for coaches at that AIL level, it’s admirable and a great ambition to have.

But it has to be practical and it also needs to be implementable by the club. You need all four provinces being very strong both at club and provincial level in order to have your international feeders at the highest level. I think it’s really important that geographical spread is maintained.”

You can read the full ‘Women in Rugby’ action plan here.

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