Blackrock captain Michelle Claffey lifts the WAIL trophy. Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

WAIL to remain 9-team league despite report recommending expansion

IRFU committee member Fiona Steed responded to criticism of her role with the women’s sub-committee.

THE IRFU HAS indicated that the Women’s All-Ireland League [WAIL] will be a nine-team, 18-round competition next season, despite an independent report published last year recommending that the competition move to a two-division format involving 12 clubs.

Last year’s Women in Rugby Action Plan review, which was commissioned by the IRFU, made a primary recommendation that the WAIL should be expanded to 12 teams in two divisions of six teams each from the 2023/24 on, bringing in promotion and relegation.

However, it now looks like the WAIL will remain a nine-team league next season, albeit this time extending beyond Christmas, following what the IRFU said was extensive consultation with the clubs.

IRFU women’s sub-committee chair Fiona Steed indicated that the plans still need to be copperfastened over the coming weeks after a long series of discussions.

Former Ireland international Steed, who is also part of the IRFU’s main rugby committee, also responded to those who have questioned her credibility.

“You hear stuff about the women’s sub-committee and who is leading it?,” she said at the IRFU’s women in rugby press briefing today.

“This is me. I’m it, OK. When my credibility is questioned, I’m sort of like, ‘Really?’

“OK, that’s fine, I’m happy to be questioned but I think I have the knowledge, experience, and depth of rugby in me to chair that committee and bring the stakeholders together and to work for that. Just in case anyone was in doubt as to who is chairing that women’s sub-committee, that’s me.”

Steed outlined how the AIL clubs had not been in collective agreement with the proposed new 6+6 format and explained that there were a series of group meetings and individual consultations directly with each club.

“When you’re in that group setting, there can be a bit of groupthink,” said Steed. “There can be dominant voices that speak on behalf of the clubs even though they’re perhaps not speaking on behalf of the clubs.”

One of the complications has been that the new Celtic Challenge competition that launched for the first time this year and featured one Irish team will be expanded and include two Irish sides from next season.

Under the suggested new format, there will be four clashes between the 11-week Celtic Challenge and WAIL action, but three of those will be WAIL Cup games rather than the actual league.

fiona-steed IRFU committee member Fiona Steed. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

With the inter-provincial championship involving Munster, Leinster, Connacht, and Ulster to run at the beginning of the season, as well as considerations for Ireland’s international calendar, there has been plenty to weigh up.

Steed said that the WAIL clubs understand that their Ireland internationals won’t be around to play in all domestic games.

“There’s an acceptance from all the clubs that the highest level players won’t necessarily be available,” said Steed.

“So the players playing at international standard will not be available for the AIL in these windows, that’s more or less accepted.”

She also clarified that the IRFU view the women’s WAIL as part of the pathway towards ‘performance’ rugby, rather than part of the highest level of the game.

“We want a high standard, high-performing AIL but it’s not a performance competition in terms of the way the report laid out,” said Steed.

The IRFU women’s sub-committee chair indicated frustration at one of the WAIL clubs not responding to an email on the subject of the format of the league when an 18-round format was proposed.

“It doesn’t help the decision-making process when you don’t have replies to direct questions,” said Steed.

Steed outlined that, similarly to the men’s AIL, the winners of the four provincial league competitions will play off against each other for promotion into the WAIL at the end of next season. 

That would leave the WAIL with a 10-team format for the 2024/25 season.

“I’ll get shot for saying we’re following the men but some of the things the men do, they do quite well and we can take snippets of that and modify it to what we need to achieve in the women’s game,” said Steed.

Another of the complications has been that the IRFU consulted clubs currently outside the WAIL around a change in regulations that would allow junior players to be registered as dual-status.

That would mean any WAIL clubs struggling for player numbers due to Celtic Challenge or Ireland call-ups could bring in players from clubs outside the WAIL.

Steed confirmed that the IRFU expects to meet with the WAIL clubs again next week to discuss all of the above.

“We’re going against the report suggested, which was 6+6 following consultation and going to the clubs outside of the WAIL,” said Steed.

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