Michelle Claffey and Niamh Byrne. ©INPHO/Ben Brady

'It would be great to see club rugby at the heart of what will happen'

Railway Union and Blackrock will meet in the Women’s AIL final on Friday.

ALL OF A sudden, the Energia Women’s All-Ireland League final is upon us.

In a repeat of last season’s decider, reigning champions Railway Union meet Blackrock at Energia Park this Friday [KO 7.45pm, TG4] following a shortened campaign that featured only eight regular season games.

The AIL has whistled past after being condensed into the first half of the season.

“It’s been wild,” says Railway captain Niamh Byrne. “I feel like every weekend is a big rugby weekend and it’s been crazy, but at this point we have all eyes on Friday night and we’re just going to get on with it and hopefully put in a good performance.”

Blackrock skipper Michelle Claffey points out that an untimely injured could have resulted in players missing most of the AIL campaign, but thankfully both teams in are relatively good health for Friday.

John Cronin’s Railway side beat a good Old Belvedere team in last weekend’s semi-finals, while Blackrock edged past UL Bohemians. Those top four were again better than the rest of the AIL, with Blackrock managing to win all eight of their regular season games, including a 19-17 victory away to Railway. 

“I think it’s that familiarity that makes it an exciting game for players,” says Byrne.

“With each year, it gets more competitive. The skill level is higher across the board. In those top-four games, the margins are closer. They’ve obviously been working on their game plan, and we’re looking to always develop.”

Key to that Blackrock’s excellent run has been squad rotation by head coach Ben Martin.

“There’s nothing worse than having the same 15 every week,” says Claffey. “You might think consistency is good but it’s not when you come to a semi-final or final and those consistent player are all broken or tired. Our bench is just as good as our starters.”

a-view-of-the-energia-all-ireland-womens-league-division-1-trophy-ahead-of-the-final The AIL trophy at Energia Park. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Blackrock’s squad includes young international stars who are among those to take up the first-ever women’s 15s contracts with the IRFU this season.

Fullback Méabh Deely and back row Dorothy Wall are two of Ireland’s brightest prospects, although this new development does create a challenge for the clubs.

“They’re training every day and that’s fantastic to see,” says Claffey. “But it’s annoying that on a Tuesday they can’t participate [in club training] because their load is being managed. Other girls are training Tuesday and Thursday but might not be selected.

“That’s from a selfish club point of view. But then come the games, the girls’ fitness is amazing, their skills are incredible, they can see things. That’s why they’re in the Irish set-up, because they’re incredible rugby players.”

Friday’s clash should be a well-fought decider and the TV coverage on TG4 for the second season in a row is very welcome.

Last season’s decider was a superb game of rugby and a brilliant advert for the women’s AIL.

The second part of this season will involve an as-yet-unannounced Irish team competing in a new Celtic Cup competition against Welsh and Scottish sides before the internationals go into Six Nations camp.

AIL players will be involved in a cup competition for the remainder of the season and it remains to be seen exactly where the club game stands in the future.

There is a new WXV international competition launching next year, the Celtic Cup is expected to expand, while there has also been talk of a new European Cup competition in the future too.

railway-union-lift-the-trophy-as-all-ireland-champions Railway are the defending champions. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Claffey and Byrne just hope that the AIL doesn’t fall by the wayside as the new season plan is built.

“My club has always been the place I go to, it has been the heart of my rugby journey,” says Byrne.

“It’s very important that there remains a link. Rugby is about community, it’s about community spirit. To sever the link with clubs would be terrible for rugby as a whole.

“What are people training for if you rip out the heart of it? Where does the nine-year-old girl go to play rugby? They see women playing on the telly, so where do they go?

“Getting rid of the club game is wrong.”

Byrne echoes that sentiment.

“Club rugby, it’s where you are three nights a week, it’s where you are week-in, week-out, regardless of where you fit into broader teams,” says the Railway skipper. “It would be great to see club rugby at the heart of what will happen.

“I don’t know what will happen, but it would be great to see those clubs stay, and that’s your grassroots.”

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