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Irish rugby aims for 20% female representation with new 'Women in Rugby' plan

The IRFU has released its action plan for the women’s game over the next five years.

IT’S BEEN A rather turbulent year and a bit for women’s rugby in Ireland, with a poor home World Cup followed by a handful of IRFU decisions that prompted a fair degree of disapproval.

The union is looking to put all of that behind it with the launch of its new ‘Women in Rugby‘ action plan for 2018 to 2023, which is a key part of their overall strategic plan for rugby in the country over the next five years.

Sene Naoupu celebrates her try with teammates Ireland Women play the US and England next month. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Some will be disappointed that the IRFU’s new strategy does not include plans to follow their English and New Zealand counterparts in offering professional contracts to female players, but the IRFU is convinced it can bring about major growth in the women’s game.

At the highest level, the IRFU has targeted consistent top three finishes and one title in the Six Nations for Ireland Women over the next five years, as well as a first-ever top-six finish at the 2021 World Cup.

On the sevens front, the objectives are a top-six finish at the 2022 World Cup, qualification for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, as well as two tournament wins on the World Rugby Sevens Series.

But the new ‘Women in Rugby’ plan is really more about what IRFU chief executive Philip Browne terms as “the need to build from grassroots to create a sustainable model for the game.”

The strategy is largely based on the work carried out by an independent review group established in November 2017 in the wake of the disappointing 2017 World Cup, with co-chairs Mary Quinn and Su Carty helping to evaluate the women’s game at all levels.

Carty says the IRFU’s new plan “aims to build depth to drive greater competition for places, which will propel Ireland’s representative sides towards consistently strong performances on the international stage.”

Essentially, the union wants far great female participation in rugby and is planning to increase investment from €13 million to €17 million.

The IRFU says that by 2023, it aims to count the female representation in rugby in Ireland at a minimum of 20% – including players, coaches, referees, volunteers and committees.

There are currently 1,341 active adult female players in Ireland but the IRFU’s objective is that the figure will have risen to 5,000 by 2023, with those players involved across more than 300 teams [there are 190 at present].

Mary Quinn and Su Carty Mary Quinn and Su Carty lead the review into women's rugby in Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Currently, there are 2,500 active youth players and the IRFU is aiming for 6,500 in five years’ time.

The union wants more than 450 female coaches, with the figure currently standing at 179, while the aim is to ensure the current crop of 12 female referees in Irish rugby numbers more than 80 in the period of this strategic plan.

Campaigns like the Aldi Play Rugby programme will be important in attracting and retaining new female players, while sevens rugby will also be central to the IRFU’s strategy.

There have been real concerns at the top level of the game at how the union is focusing on both 15s and sevens, with international players sometimes switching between the two codes.

The IRFU’s decision last year to pull three players from the Six Nations to go on sevens duty was met with anger, but the union’s performance director, David Nucifora, has always insisted that women’s rugby in Ireland is “one big women’s programme” that encompasses both sevens and 15s rugby.

Asked to explain why this was the case, Nucifora stressed his belief that sevens will be vital in attracting new players to the sport.

“It’s an access point to the game,” said Nucifora.

“One of the beauties of rugby is its complexity and that can also be one of our challenges in that it is a complex game for people to play and learn.

“In 2009, we were presented with the game of sevens becoming an Olympic sport and therefore it created an opportunity for countries around the world to utilise the game and have an endpoint as well with the Olympics.

A view of the event The IRFU hopes to push the women's game forward. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“To be able to bring young players into the game with something that is a lot more uncluttered, a lot simpler to learn but has all the basic components of the game – what you need to be able to do to be able to play 15s rugby.

“So it’s an obvious access point for the people who haven’t played the game before and, for us, the importance is that once we get new people into the game they can choose.

“We have to build those bridges for the clubs to be able to leverage off the school system where we’ve got young girls playing sevens rugby. Leverage off that so that we can get them into the clubs to play 15s rugby and support the clubs to be able to provide good experiences to the young girls playing rugby.

“So, when you’re presented with tools like that, if you don’t utilise them properly that would be poor business.”

The IRFU says it’s committed to supporting 100 clubs to develop “a full participation pathway for female players” – meaning from mini rugby all the way into the senior adult game.


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Another objective is to develop 150 secondary schools with similarly unbroken participation pathways, revolving around the sevens game.

The union aims to almost double the number of players in Third Level institutions around the country from a current figure of 553.

Wayne Mitchell has been appointed as the IRFU’s new ‘talent ID coordinator’ to scout and oversee the most promising players from the ages of 15 to 19, while the union also hopes that the U18 Girls inter-pros will soon operate in the camp-format the U18 men’s competitions did for the first time this year.

The recently-launched ‘emerging talent camps‘ for players up to the age of 23 are set to expand too, providing another link in what the IRFU hopes will be a “clear progression pathway.”

Fiona Hayes lifts the trophy UL Bohs are the reigning AIL champions. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The union is also keen that the Women’s All-Ireland League is established as “a sustainable high-performance competition” and that will involve increased resources for coaching education and a new AIL Summer Sevens Series. 

Overseeing all of these objectives and ensuring the IRFU remain on top of its lofty ambitions will be the aforementioned advisory board, which will meet every six months to assess the progress.

Made up of Quinn, Carty, Browne, Nicholas Comyn and Greg Barrett, the board hopes to add a former international player to its number in the coming weeks and plans to have its ear to the ground at all levels of the game.

“If you sat once every six months and did absolutely nothing in between, you’d be pretty useless,” said Quinn.

“We will be getting and seeking information right across the game in all departments to make sure this is actually happening.”

You can read the full ‘Women in Rugby’ action plan here.

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Murray Kinsella

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