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'It's a huge jump going from U18s to senior. There's a massive issue with drop-out'

Rugby Academy Ireland plans to put together the country’s first-ever national U20 team.

THE LACK OF U20s teams has been a consistent theme in discussions around women’s rugby in Ireland for years, but now someone is finally doing something about it.

Last Thursday, Rugby Academy Ireland [RAI] – a privately-run academy based in Kildare – announced that it is setting up the first-ever national women’s U20 team.

The plan is for the squad to assemble once a month for training sessions, leading towards a trip to the UK next April or May to take on an as-yet-unconfirmed English side.

The new team – which isn’t affiliated with the IRFU – will be coached by former Ireland internationals Fiona Hayes, Alison Miller, and Jenny Murphy.

jenny-murphy-with-caroline-drouin-and-annaelle-deshaye Jenny Murphy is skills coach for the new U20 team. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In outlining how this U20 venture came about, Caoimhe Morris – RAI’s women’s rugby coordinator – explains that she has coached plenty of underage girls teams in recent years and has seen just how difficult it can be to make the leap from U18s to senior rugby.

Morris found that Hayes, Miller, and Murphy had similar viewpoints.

“I’d noticed that I’d have some really good U18 girls and they’d go from school to a club and you’d check in to see how they’re getting on at that senior level and it would turn out some of them had dropped out of the sport,” says Morris.

“There’s a massive issue with drop-out at 18 or 19-years-old.

“It’s a huge jump going from U18s to senior. The conversations I’ve had with players who have ended up dropping out, they’d go along to the senior training and, all of a sudden, they’re being tackled by someone in their late 20s who has been playing for 10 years. It’s a big challenge asking any 18-year-old to stick it out when they’re struggling, it takes a lot of maturity.”

Putting together a strong coaching team was important for Morris. Sustained success with UL Bohs means Hayes was an ideal choice as the U20 side’s head coach, while skills coach Murphy has been working with Naas RFC, and backs coach Miller has also permanently joined the coaching ranks since retiring from Ireland duty last year.

“We talk about role models and these are three people who are the reason I got into rugby into the first place,” says Morris, who coaches the senior boys’ team at Mount Temple Comprehensive School and is also backs coach for Clontarf Women.

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fiona-hayes Fiona Hayes is the new team's head coach. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Their names transcend the sport a little bit and that’s definitely going to encourage girls to get involved, the chance to be coached by some of the most decorated players there are.

“I’ve never been to a World Cup or won a Six Nations, but these three coaches have done it at the highest level and now they’ve transferred it into coaching. They’re also very positive, very encouraging people and I think that’s a massive thing in women’s rugby and that’s only going to create a good environment.”

While Covid could obviously put a spanner in the works, the plan is for a trial to take place in Naas on 29 October and Morris says RAI have an extremely encouraging number of applications so far, including U18 inter-provincial players, U18 Sevens internationals, and players without any representative honours.

“We’re hoping to accommodate everyone who applies, there’s no minimum requirement in terms of experience,” says Morris, who outlines that players will still predominately play for their clubs or universities while the RAI U20 side “assists in their learning.” 

Morris says RAI informed the IRFU of the plan to bring together U20 players from around the country and the union had no issue, wishing them the best of luck with the initiative.

The monthly training sessions will hopefully lead on to a trip to England next year, with Morris keen to bring a big squad and potentially play more than one game. She has had informal discussions with several clubs and hopes to get a date or dates in the diary soon.

alison-miller-scores-a-try Alison Miller scoring her famous try against New Zealand in 2015. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Finding financial support is another big item on the to-do list. Players will contribute €150 each to cover coaching costs and training gear, but Morris is eager to find a lead sponsor for the season.

“We hope to get a sponsor on board, we’re actively looking for sponsors to help out with the cost of flights and accommodation for that trip. We’d love to get a jersey sponsor, that would be great.”

The uncertainty about everything right now is far from ideal but Morris says she, Hayes, Miller, and Murphy were keen to take the genuine first step by announcing the plans. They’ve been blown away by the support since last week.

“I’m delighted with the response,” says Morris. “We knew it might be a bit of welcome news after all the talk over the last years saying this needed to happen, but it’s been brilliant.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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