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'Jenny fits in with our culture of working extremely hard to have fun'

Ireland international Jenny Murphy will help to coach the new Naas RFC women’s team next season.

BACK IN 2010, Naas RFC got the girls’ section of their club up and running.

At the start, there were just three young players training away in the corner of one of the pitches at the club’s ground in Forenaughts.

They were enthusiastic and hungry to learn, but the prospect of them ever playing for the club’s senior women’s team seemed unlikely. That team simply didn’t exist.

Jenny Murphy Jenny Murphy will be part of the coaching team for Naas' women's team next season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

This week, however, Naas confirmed that they will launch a new senior women’s team next season, off the back of the explosion in popularity of their girls’ section over the last eight years.

Ireland international centre and Kildare native Jenny Murphy, currently on a sabbatical from Test rugby and recovering from knee surgery, will be part of Naas’ coaching team as they head into an exciting new era.

Long-time Naas club man David McKeown has been working hard to get this senior team launched for some years, having started the girls’ section back in 2010 and coached all three of his daughters.

“I was coaching the youths in Naas that year and my daughter expressed an interest in playing,” recalls McKeown. “There were a few girls who had played a blitz the year before but we literally had three underage girls in Naas at the start.

“We’ve now got over 100 girls, so we’re one of the biggest in the country. I think Wicklow are the biggest with around 150 but we’ve really worked hard on the girls’ side of the club.

“My daughter, Emily, who started playing with two of her friends in Naas rugby club eight years ago, has now graduated from the rugby course in IT Carlow and has been playing with Carlow this season.”

It’s a fine example of the strength of the Naas’ girls’ section, and there were four other graduates playing for St. Mary’s and Suttonians when Naas RFC hosted the Leinster Women’s League Finals last weekend.

Murphy didn’t start playing rugby until she moved to the UK for university but Naas is her closest local club and she recalls being particularly struck by the passion of the underage players during a visit there last year.

Ailsa Hughes meets Naas RFC Naas players with Ireland scrum-half Ailsa Hughes as last year's Provincial Mini Rugby Festival. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We were doing the trophy tour before the World Cup and it was the biggest numbers I’ve ever seen for girls,” says Murphy.

“There were so many girls playing, even some of them in scrum caps that were too big for them, and it was really nice to see the level of interest.

“David is enthusiastic and forward-thinking, so I’m looking forward to getting started and learning something new.”

For Naas’ part, they are thrilled to have someone of Murphy’s standing within the game onboard for next season.

“Jenny is brilliant,” says McKeown. “You’ll ask her to come to the club and she’ll say yes before you even tell her when or why!

“Jenny fits in with our culture of working extremely hard to have fun. Rugby is not the end of the world, it’s not life and death, but when you work hard, it’s fun.

“Jenny is a local girl, she’s from Ballymore Eustace, and she has shown genuine interest and a feel for the club even before any formal conversation to join the coaching team. Her approach, culture and character are absolutely perfect.”

The rest of the coaching team remains to be put in place but planning is underway ahead of the start of a first pre-season in August and Murphy is keen to help out in any way she can.

Defence is the strongest area of her game on the pitch and she is likely to work with the backs too as she learns more about coaching. “I’ll be staying away from the scrums and lineouts,” she jokes.

Murphy has been part of a new programme launched in Leinster last year to ensure women’s rugby players can learn about coaching.

Jenny Murphy tackled by Gaelle Mignot and Lenaig Corson Murphy in action for Ireland at last year's World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The programme is being run by Derek Maybury, coach development officer for Leinster Rugby, and has also involved former Ireland internationals Nora Stapleton, Sophie Spence, Ailis Egan, Fiona Coghlan and Tania Rosser.

“They’re retired now and want to give something back that way,” says Murphy. “I still have my boots cleaned and ready to go for when I’m back playing, but I want to look at this side of the game as well.

“And it’s not just international players, there are lots of others who want to be part of the coaching side.”

One part of the programme involved observing Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster running a training session in Donnybrook, while Murphy also learned from Dan van Zyl, a former Springbok who works with Leinster as a coach development officer.

Giselle Maher, Wasps’ director of rugby, a World Cup winner with England and coach of the first women’s Barbarians team, was there for the opening session of the programme in Leinster to share her expertise.

Intriguingly, Murphy has also spent time with Niamh Buffini, the performance operations manager for Paralympics Ireland and a former Taekwondo world champion, to further her coaching knowledge.

“If you’re a good coach in one sport, a lot of that translates into other sports,” says Murphy. “She’s been helping me and some of the other girls out a lot. It’s something new and, hopefully, the girls that I’m getting to coach in Naas will pick some of that stuff up.

“But I’ll probably learn just as much from them and can take it back to my own playing career. It’s a symbiotic thing.”

Working with Murphy will be an exciting experience for the players involved in Naas’ women’s team – a team that McKeown calls the “logical conclusion” to the growth of the girls’ section.

The senior project began with ‘Friday Night Friendlies’ two years ago, whereby local players and those from further afield would come together to play, including what was the first women’s U20 game in the country.

Naas RFC Some of the Naas RFC girls at Tullamore RFC last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Those girls who have stayed with Naas to play these friendlies, plus the graduates from our U18s team, we can now bring them all together into a proper women’s team.”

The club has been supportive of McKeown’s drive towards getting the team launched, and he points out that the drop-off of around 100 boys in Naas RFC in recent years has been compensated for by the growth of the girls’ section to over 100 players.

“We don’t think there is any philosophical divide between youths rugby, women’s rugby, men’s rugby,” says McKeown.

He does believe that girls’ rugby is a “massive untapped market,” even if it takes lots of hard work to find players and keep the programme going in the early years as players learn about the game.

As for Murphy, she is excited about this team getting up and running full-time.

Many top internationals in the women’s game in Ireland have spoken about the growth of the player base around the country being of chief importance in the coming years.

A success story like Naas’ is just the start of it.

“It might only seem like a drop in the water now, but it’s going to make a big difference,” says Murphy. “There’s still no U20s competition in Ireland and there are girls from our team in the recent past who would love to be part of building that.”

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Murray Kinsella

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