brains trust

'It's gone from the drinking culture and we want to go to that elite level'

Nora Stapleton, Maz Reilly, Ailis Egan and Cathy Murphy will coach the Dublin club this season.

“IF YOU START THE season with 50 players and finish with 55 or 60, then you’ve done a good job.”

So says Marie Louise Reilly – or ‘Maz’ as she’s better know – ahead of the new season with Old Belvedere Women, where she’s part of an exciting new coaching team alongside fellow former Ireland internationals Nora Stapleton and Ailis Egan, as well as club stalwart Cathy Murphy.

Belvo have consistently been among the top clubs in Ireland over the past eight years or so and the fact that nine of their players are involved for Leinster in today’s inter-pro clash with Connacht today speaks volumes of the quality of their current squad.

Nora Stapleton and Katie O'Dwyer Stapleton retired from playing at the end of last season. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

While the new coaching staff at Anglesea Road will continue to help players towards provincial and international honours, they also want to bring new members into the club, no matter their playing level or any lack of rugby experience.

The passion for rugby oozes from Reilly, Stapleton, Egan and Murphy as we sit in Belvo’s clubhouse just off Anglesea Road in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

This is a quartet who know the game, understand the challenges and possibilities in women’s rugby, as well as how the sport could and should be grown. A proper Irish women’s rugby brains trust.

While IRFU CEO Philip Browne sees an “unsustainability in the women’s game at the moment where the club game is not strong enough to fully support the national team,” the Belvo coaching team see an opportunity for something special to develop.

“There’s a lot of talent out there spread around the country,” explains former prop Egan. “But if they’re not playing in the top AIL teams, the only teams being watched, they’re being missed.”

Reilly relates how she turned up to her first Ireland camp and Lynne Cantwell asked, “Where have you been?” The towering lock had been playing rugby at Division 3 and 4 levels, Irish rugby essentially unaware of her talent until she was spotted by happy accident.

Belvo hope to welcome players from around the country looking to test themselves at a higher level, but this coaching staff understands that players need to be identified earlier by the union.

“There’s talent up and down the country but it’s the case of having a pathway to stay in rugby, rather than going and playing county football,” says Reilly, pointing to the good work being done at clubs like Listowel, Wicklow, and Tullamore.

Ailis Egan Egan in action for the Barbarians in 2017, when she played alongside Stapleton and Reilly. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“We need people out there recognising them and bringing them into the pathway.”

Murphy points out that the inter-pros are improving in quality year-on-year and says “Leinster are really taking it to the next level in terms of what they’re trying to do and I’m sure the other provinces are the same.”

Stapleton agrees and underlines that clubs around the country need to take responsibility for development too, as Belvo are striving to do, pushing for an elite mindset in their approach.

They now have a physio at every match, as well as working with injured players at training sessions. A strength and conditioning coach will oversee their programme full-time, while video analysis has been improved and the club will lean on players who are nutritionists in their day jobs for expertise in that area.

“Rugby was seen as a social sport and that’s changed over the years; some clubs are moving faster than others,” says Stapleton. “We need to ensure we all understand that it’s gone from the drinking culture that used to be associated with it and now we want the women’s AIL to go to that more elite level.

“We need to aspire to what’s happening at county level in other sports. How do we get girls to realise that they’re playing in an All-Ireland League, with a new sponsor in Energia. It’s growing, improving and we all need to go with it.”

Egan nods in agreement, smiles and adds, “We’ll also have some craic along the way!” 

All four of Belvo’s coaches have benefited from Leinster Rugby’s initiative to help develop female coaches, linking them with mentors who have guided them in areas like communication and planning.

Stapleton, who called time on her playing career at the end of last season, coaches with Belvo during that campaign, as did Reilly – who is also involved in the Leinster Women set-up.

Nora Stapleton and Catherine Murphy Stapleton and Murphy at Anglesea Road. Old Belvedere RFC Old Belvedere RFC

Egan and Murphy, meanwhile, coached Belvo’s 2nds team last season and stress that having two teams is rare in the women’s game.

“You’re guaranteed games here, guaranteed numbers at training and then quality coaching and quality off the pitch,” says Murphy.

Over the summer, they have had guests coaches like Tania Rosser – who is staying on as a consultant – and Ireland Women boss Adam Grigg in for skills sessions.

It’s a huge year for Ireland Women with World Cup qualification on the line in September 2020, meaning Belvo’s international players will miss AIL action at times but the club is happy to be part of the plan.

“The internationals will be managed really well and they have to be,” says Egan. “That’s our responsibility too, working with the national management to get them the right amount of rest or game time.”

All four coaches are hopeful Ireland can achieve that crucial goal of earning a spot at the 2021 World Cup, but they’re keen for more work to be done on the pathway towards senior Test rugby.

The IRFU’s recent promise to invest more in club rugby – ringfencing funds for the women’s game – is welcome but the Belvo brains trust stress the need for an Ireland U20s team to be added to the system.

“That would be huge,” says Egan. “Over the years, the U18 Championship has improved every single time but we lose so many of those girls afterwards. How many of them come through to senior rugby?

“If you had that carrot of the U20s, they would have something to work towards. Otherwise, you’re straight into a senior club and there are international players there, it’s daunting. If you had that transition, I think more girls would stay in the game.”

Marie-Louise Reilly applauds the fans after the game Former second row Reilly is also part of Leinster's backroom team. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

Reilly nods in agreement and points to Leinster’s Judy Bobbett as a probable captain of an Ireland U20s team, calling her the “James Ryan of women’s rugby.”

Leeds-born Reilly is hopeful that the inter-pros, which run over five weeks for the first time, will deliver “a couple of wildcards” for Ireland and she stresses that “you need that competition as you can’t have players getting comfortable in an Ireland team.”

For much of this season, these ambitious coaches will be focusing on Belvo, where they’ve been pleased to interact more and more with the men’s teams, blurring the lines between sides and becoming a more integrated club.

The double-headers of AIL fixtures, with the women’s team playing after the men, at Anglesea Road last season helped hugely, with even some of the older ‘alickadoos’ enjoying the vibe created around the club.

The women’s team has received “generous” sponsorship from Slattery’s Pub in Beggars Bush and the new coaching team are now keen to play their part in what they believe can be major growth in Irish women’s rugby in the coming years.

“There are more women and girls playing rugby in Iran than there are in Ireland at the moment,” says Reilly in outlining the challenge ahead.

“So there’s a massive uphill battle to be had but then history shows you can still do it.

“If you get the right crew, coach them the right way and get those pathways going, you can achieve greatness.”

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