Ireland came up short against Scotland on Saturday. Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO
low point

IRFU must be brutally self-critical as review into World Cup failure begins

The union must work hard to harness the potential of the domestic game in order to better prepare players.

IT WAS GRIM, haunting viewing as the cameras panned across the distraught faces of the Irish players after Scotland’s Sarah Law had calmly slotted the winning conversion.

Indeed, it almost felt like an invasion of what should have been private moments of emotional turmoil.

Although Irish women’s rugby has been in decline since 2015 – or perhaps simply standing still as others have improved and progressed – this is a new low point.

The home World Cup in 2017 was a failure as Ireland’s eighth-place finish meant they missed out on qualification for the next tournament. It was a major opportunity gone astray on home soil when there had been high hopes of a thrilling effort to capture the public consciousness.

The IRFU carried out a review into that failed campaign – the report wasn’t made public – and proceeded to set itself some lofty goals the following year.

The ‘Women In Rugby Action Plan’ targetted a Six Nations title before 2023, qualification for the 2021 World Cup, qualification for the Olympic 7s, and consistent top-six finishes on the World 7s Series.

The action plan didn’t include detail on how this could be achieved and, ultimately, all targets have been missed unless Ireland can achieve the unthinkable and beat England and France to a Six Nations title in the next couple of years.

Back in 2018, the IRFU also stated its aim of having 20% of its committee and management roles occupied by women when 2023 rolled around – having started at just 2%.

The recent appointments of Fiona Steed and Yvonne Comer to the IRFU committee were a positive step but the union will need to do serious work in the next two years to hit that particular target. There is little doubt that a great deal more female influence is required at the very top of the IRFU.

This was all intended to be the start of a new era but instead, Ireland have fallen to the point of failing to qualify for the World Cup. In a sport with as few genuinely competitive nations as rugby, it is a damning situation for the IRFU.

anthony-eddy David Nucifora brought Anthony Eddy [pictured] in from Australia soon after his own arrival at the IRFU. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Performance director David Nucifora and director of women’s and 7s rugby Anthony Eddy are at the top of the chain when it comes to responsibility for the health of Ireland’s national women’s rugby teams and their reaction to this huge setback will be telling. 

It simply must be a turning point in the trajectory of the game as the latest review gets underway.

“The IRFU, no more than the players and team management – as was evident from the reaction at the end of the game against Scotland – are extremely disappointed that our women’s team objective of qualifying for the Rugby World Cup has not been achieved,” reads an IRFU statement today. 

“An enormous level of work and commitment from the players, team management and the IRFU high performance team has been given to this campaign over the past 18 months and we would like to thank them all.

“In line with the men’s 2019 Rugby World Cup and all other National Team campaigns, a review of the Women’s XV’s RWC qualifying campaign will be conducted.

“A mix of external consultants and internal stakeholders will be tasked with providing a detailed report to the IRFU high performance unit.”

It remains to be seen how much of the review those of us on the outside will hear about but it needs to be a brutally honest one that extends beyond the actual senior national team’s performances in this qualifying tournament.

Of course, Ireland’s disastrous lineout, poor discipline, inconsistent handling skills, scrum issues, and breakdown inaccuracies contributed to the defeats to Spain and Scotland, but the IRFU must ask why the players weren’t better equipped to take on the challenge.

The national team’s exploits on the pitch make more headlines but the most important layers are underneath that level in the pathway towards the pinnacle.

Pre-Covid, there were encouraging signs in the numbers of girls taking up rugby through campaigns like ‘Give it a Try’ and programmes in schools, but Bantry Bay’s scathing thread of tweets today underlines how there are still serious issues even at the very grassroots.

dorothy-wall-dejected-after-the-game Ireland's dejection was clear on Saturday. Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO / INPHO

There is the enduring issue of players having to leap from U18s straight into senior women’s rugby – to the extent that the independent Rugby Academy Ireland set up an U20 initiative last year without support from the IRFU.

And then there is the concerning reality of the Women’s All-Ireland League, which the IRFU simply must take more ownership of.

Right now, there exists a rift between several of the AIL clubs and the powers-that-be. The clubs would like a real say in the running of their league, they would like a little more support with their ambitions for high-performing training programmes, and perhaps more exposure to games against English and French sides.

As things stand, it is hard to see the IRFU’s attitude towards the AIL and the inter-provincials as being anything other than dismissive. There is a sense that they don’t feel it’s a good preparation ground for Test rugby but if that is the case, then why not work more closely with the clubs to make it so?

We are constantly told in men’s rugby that players won’t be ready for the Test arena until they’ve had exposure in the Champions Cup or the knock-out stages of what is now the URC.

Where are female players getting a chance to play consistently under pressure, with their skills tested, with high-quality refereeing, and the best players against the best? If the IRFU doesn’t see the league as such then surely they can work harder to improve it?

The IRFU has helped to organise Ireland tighthead Linda Djougang’s move to Clermont this season, which will be a fantastic experience for the player and surely improve her, but what does it say about their view of the AIL? 

There are several other Irish players based in England, having moved across the water with the articulated plan of making themselves better players. The IRFU should see every single departure as an indictment of their work on these shores.

The reality is that the AIL clubs feel that Eddy and Nucifora want nothing to do with them.

Let’s not bemoan everything the IRFU is doing here. There are very good people in the system who work tirelessly for the betterment of women’s rugby in this country. There are also countless volunteers giving up their time and energy to keep the sport alive.

linda-djougang-makes-a-break-to-score-a-try Linda Djougang is joining Clermont this season. Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO / INPHO

But many of those people feel their efforts are in vain when there is such disconnection further up the pathway.

Meanwhile, Nucifora and Eddy’s policy of chasing success in 7s rugby hasn’t paid off so far. The women’s 7s teams failed to qualify for the Olympics and have yet to taste success on the World 7s Series, which certainly hasn’t captured the wider Irish public’s imagination.

Players shifting from one code to the other has made life trickier for the Ireland 15s side, with some of the most talented players having only recently come into the 15s squad, missing out on so much of the experience they could have had before the World Cup Qualifier. 

Ireland have been trying to juggle two balls in this sense but the results suggest that they have dropped both as a result.

There are several other issues simmering along away from the limelight in women’s rugby but the stark reality of missing out on a 15s World Cup for the first time tells us that all is not well.

Rather than brushing this under carpet as the wider interest fades in the coming weeks, the IRFU’s review needs to be utterly self-critical and transformative in the long run.

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