Daisy Earle and Lindsay Peat celebrate Railway Union's AIL success in 2019. Oisin Keniry/INPHO

'It's a historic event for Irish rugby with significant benefits for the women's game'

Leinster Rugby has voted to grant women’s AIL clubs and players senior status.

LEINSTER RUGBY HAS voted in favour of recognising women players as senior players and acknowledging that women’s clubs participating in the Women’s All-Ireland League [AIL] are now senior clubs.

It’s a move that has been six years in the making and has been driven with impressive persistence by Railway Union RFC, whose chairperson, Shirley Corcoran, says it’s “a historic event for Irish rugby with significant and multiple benefits for the women’s game.

“We believe men and women should receive parity of esteem and equality in all sports and it’s been our long-held belief that women could be senior players,” adds Corcoran of a proposal that was voted in at yesterday’s Leinster Rugby AGM.

Senior status for women’s AIL clubs will mean those who are actually involved in women’s rugby can now be part of decision-making Leinster committees and also means greater resources, including more international match tickets from the IRFU – which should, in turn, mean more sponsorship for women’s teams.

Corcoran outlines that this should all help to ensure female players will be better able to fulfill their potential and be better prepared to play Test rugby for Ireland, but stresses that there is much work still ahead even after this major milestone.

Leinster is the first province to grant women’s teams official senior club status – the move was initially rejected two years ago but sparked the development of an Inclusivity Committee in Leinster – although Ulster Rugby did amend its bye-laws in 2019 to recognise that clubs playing in either the men’s or women’s AIL had equal status.

Corcoran believes Munster and Connacht “are likely to or at least absolutely should be following suit.”

Corcoran hopes the move in Leinster will enable ‘performance clubs’ like Railway Union to continue to push their ambitious programmes forward, and that it also leads on to changes at IRFU level.

“We have a seat in Leinster now but we still have to try and get a seat in the IRFU,” says Corcoran. “We’re still nowhere near it and it’s so frustrating.”

meg-kendal-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-team-mates Railway Union have an ambitious high-performance programme. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

That IRFU’s sub-committee for women’s rugby currently involves members being appointed rather than voted onto it. Remarkably, that committee doesn’t have a single representative from the 10 AIL clubs.

“That’s a huge gap in knowledge,” says Corcoran, who is also chair of the Women’s All-Ireland League committee that the AIL clubs themselves created independently and which is not actually part of the IRFU.

The likes of Railway Union simply want a little more support and a say in governance in order to maintain their upward trajectory. They organised their own trip to the UK to play Wasps in 2019 and would love to increase that exposure to English and French clubs in the coming seasons.

England and France both have strong women’s league structures and that has attracted Irish players. Indeed, nine of Ireland’s Six Nations squad this year are currently playing in England.

“We have to put in the competitive structures in to make it more attractive for Irish players to be playing at home,” says Corcoran.

Bath and London Irish have recently announced plans for reinvigorated women’s rugby programmes and already several more Irish players have been sounded out about moving to England next season.

There is cost involved in bringing those players back for Ireland camps, so Corcoran stresses that the AIL “needs to be bolstered and given the support it needs” with a good geographical spread of clubs that allows players all over the country to be within 90 minutes of a high-performance environment.

suzanne-hughes-and-shirley-corcoran-lift-the-all-ireland-cup Shirley Corcoran [right] and Suzanne Hughes lift the All-Ireland Cup in 2015. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Corcoran is excited by the ambitious women’s rugby programme that continues to develop in Ballincollig RFC in Cork, welcoming any such developments from within clubs.

Participation levels of the sport are crucial too, of course. Growing the numbers is important and Corcoran is enthused that this is already happening. 

She underlines that Irish rugby must now strike while the iron is hot. Railway Union would love the performance tier of Irish rugby – the AIL clubs – to come under the remit of IRFU performance director David Nucifora and director of women’s rugby Anthony Eddy, neither of whom currently oversees this layer of the game or is on the IRFU’s Women’s Committee.

Corcoran believes simple changes could have a drastic effect, particularly now with the Women’s Six Nations set to move into a permanent standalone window in April/May and also with the impending launch of the WXV competition in 2023. 

“We look forward to the day when all the representative bodies in Irish rugby follow Leinster and give equal rights to representation to women’s rugby,” says Corcoran.

“Things can change very quickly if the will and the want are there, to quote Lynne Cantwell. We have a fantastic opportunity with a blank canvas around women’s rugby.

“Women’s rugby is here to stay and the expectations of female athletes are also moving on. No longer are women happy to be excluded, gone are the times where it’s acceptable to just do enough.

“The women’s game is growing and there is a huge opportunity that needs to be embraced by the powers that be.”

- This article was updated at 12.10pm on 29 May to clarify Ulster Rugby’s amendment to its bye-laws in 2019.

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