a year to remember

'I will sacrifice whatever I need to sacrifice to get to play and perform at a proper level'

Ireland women’s international Michelle Claffey on full-time contracts, winning the inter-pro title with Leinster and the new AIL season.

WHILE THE RFU’S move to reintroduce full-time professional contract for England’s XV squad is a hugely positive development for the women’s game, the reality is that the huge disparity in resources will only widen the gap on the pitch. 

Michelle Claffey Leinster and Blackrock back Michelle Claffey. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

As the wait goes on for the IRFU’s publication of the long-awaited strategic review in the aftermath of the disastrous home World Cup, the prospect of the union handing out full-time contracts to Adam Griggs’ players is a distant one.

It means Ireland will head into this year’s Six Nations clash with England on an entirely amateur footing — save for the handful of players who are on IRFU sevens contracts and cross over — putting them at a distinct disadvantage.

This week’s announcement will see England become the first fully professional team in women’s rugby, with 28 players set to receive one-season deals from January 2019.

New Zealand — the world champions — have a semi-professional system in place, but the RFU’s decision to concentrate resources on the women’s XVs set-up is another landmark move.

The IRFU sevens programme is part of the union’s annual budget and pays both men and women involved at international level, and while four Ireland XVs players — Claire Molloy (Wasps), Cliodhna Moloney (Wasps), Leah Lyons (Harlquins) and Anna Caplice (Richmond) — are playing in the Premiership, the majority of the squad juggle work, college and rugby.

“It’s great to see, a positive step,” Ireland international Michelle Claffey, a risk consultant by day, says.

“All you want is forward steps. You don’t want anyone going back. If it ever comes, I don’t think you’ll see it in my playing career, but it’d great to see that kind of professional set-up.

“People getting paid as their full-time jobs, because at the minute now going into Six Nations, it will be Ireland versus England who are full-time professionals.

“We’ll have to step our game up, we have to train really hard. We have to mind ourselves even harder, because we do our day job. But then I want to play, I will sacrifice whatever I need to sacrifice in order to get to play and perform at a proper level.”

It has been a memorable year in the rugby life of Claffey as she made her international debut in the Six Nations win over Italy as well as helping her home province to the inter-provincial title on Saturday evening.

Now, the 28-year-old is preparing for the start of the new AIL season with Blackrock, who are coached this year by former Ireland boss Philip Doyle.

“He joined our coaching team over the summer,” the Offaly native continues. 

Michelle Claffey Claffey is preparing for the AIL season with Blackrock. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s brought a very different type of voice. He’s a very strong coach, strong personality and he’s going to make us play the way we should play. It’s fantastic. He has such good experience. He’s been involved with the Irish team.

“He knows his rugby inside out and all the sessions are planned so well, it that we’re building each week and people don’t have to ask as many questions as well. Because they remember what we did last week and it’s just a little build on. Because girls like to ask questions in training sessions! ‘Why are we doing this? I don’t understand why!’

“It’s nice to have someone there who has coached women before and can understand where we’re coming from. We’re not asking to be smart, we just don’t understand at times.”

Blackrock get their AIL campaign underway against Galwegians on Saturday 29 September, and Claffey knows if she can carry her strong form into the club season, the possibility of adding to her four international caps will increase in November.

After the IRFU controversially decided against accepting an invite to play a series Down Under in June, Adam Griggs’ side will begin their international season with Autumn games against USA at Donnybrook [18 November] and England at Twickenham [24 November].

“If I got a phone call from Griggsy again I’d be delighted,” Claffey added. “It’s great to have the Autumn internationals coming up again because it’s nice to have that standard.

“It’s very difficult to have AIL, inter-pros and then into your Six Nations, it’s an incredible step up. I can’t even explain it. Like last year against England, the last five minutes of the match, I was like ‘come on, you’ve got to pick yourself up’ because the step up is massive.

“So having those games and keeping you at a certain level will benefit Ireland going into the Six Nations.” 

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