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'We're all equal... A female coach with a female team shows it's not all male-orientated'

Clondalkin RFC have ambitions to grow the female side of their club in the coming years.

AT LAST YEAR’S Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland, just one of the 12 competing nations had a female head coach.

Hong Kong’s Jo Hull flew the flag but it does seem a little strange that there weren’t more women in the top coaching positions for the biggest competition in women’s rugby.

Ireland have yet to appoint a female head coach at national team level and the prospect seems unlikely in the short-term.

New Zealand perform the Haka after winning the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup The trophy-winning Black Ferns were one of 11 World Cup teams with male head coaches. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

However, there is some work being done at grassroots level to ensure more female coaches come through in the future.

Leinster Rugby launched a new programme last year to help female rugby players to learn more about coaching, with several former internationals – including Sophie Spence, Ailis Egan and Fiona Coghlan – taking part.

And there are some progressive clubs around the country who are open-minded about appointing women to coaching roles. Clondalkin RFC, based in the Kingswood area of Dublin, is one such club.

Their senior women’s team – nicknamed the ‘Clonettes’ – are currently in pre-season training with their first-ever female coach in Ailbhe O’Nolan, who was playing for the club up until being forced to retire due to injuries last season.

With a female vice-president in Úna Maguire, who will be the club’s president next year, Clondalkin are also making moves to bring about a girls-only minis section [U7s to U12s], the belief being that allowing girls to play separately from the boys will ensure female players stay with the club for longer.

These are exciting times for Clondalkin as O’Nolan takes on the head coaching role after several disappointing seasons that have seen the Clonettes drop from competing for trophy honours in Division 1 of the Leinster Women’s League to fighting to keep their place in Division 2.

“Coaching is difficult to get into,” says O’Nolan, who counts herself lucky to have done coaching courses during her playing days.

“You see Joy Neville trailblazing in refereeing and that’s clearly open to women more so, as is playing, obviously. Coaching is the last stubborn area where it’s difficult to get into.

“I’d love to stay involved in the women’s side, but my aspirations would absolutely be to get experience with men’s sides, be it at club level, college level, school level. The more diverse my coaching experience is, the better a coach I’ll become. I don’t want to be just kept in the women’s game, I want to have a diverse experience.”

The idea of women coaching men’s rugby teams is possibly unthinkable for some in the game but ambitious people like O’Nolan will hope to ask questions of the status quo in years to come.

There are rare role models in other sports. Becky Hammon is an assistant coach for the NBA’s Antonio Spurs, Jennifer Welter had a short-term stint as a linebacker coach for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, and Corinne Diacre head-coached French soccer team Clermont Foot.

Nonetheless, these are very much exceptions to the rule and rugby has yet to provide an example like those above.

It was positive to see Wasps director of rugby Giselle Mather head-coaching the Barbarians women’s team when they played for the first time last year.

Lower down the levels of the game, though, many clubs still opt for male coaches to take charge of their women’s teams.

“There might be some thinking that ‘No, we’ve got enough men with experience, we don’t need a woman with less experience coming on board.’” says O’Nolan. “The only way you get experience is by getting into those situations.”

Fortunately for her, Clondalkin place equal emphasis on their women’s and men’s teams, while the manner in which Maguire is rising through the committee ranks towards the presidency next year is also positive.

“It’s unusual for two reasons,” says Maguire. “One, because I’m young and, two, I’m a woman. But we’re all equal here in Clondalkin. The senior coach for the men’s team is one of the biggest advocates for women’s rugby.

“A female coach with a female team shows it’s not all male-orientated. Even myself being involved in the committees shows there’s an involvement at all levels.”

O’Nolan agrees:

“It’s something that surprised me in Clondalkin. I came in as a complete cynic – cynical of the ‘dinosaurs’ and the executives in clubs who tend to look down on women’s teams and think, ‘Ah, sure they’re like the U14 boys’ – that’s something I’ve heard in a different club.

“It’s a different animal here. Despite our lack of success, that respect is there.”

While O’Nolan has an ambitious squad of around 28 players to work with at senior level, Clondalkin currently don’t have a female youths section, i.e. girls teams from U13 up to U18.

Give It a Try branding The IRFU's #GiveItATry has been a success around Ireland. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Maguire and O’Nolan did their best to build the girls youths system in recent years but ultimately failed amidst the competition of hockey, tennis, and GAA clubs in the area.

This season, the club will re-focus on bringing more girls into their minis structures, the aim being to create a strong bond to the club in those youngsters and the hope being that they will then go on to play in a relaunched youths system in the future.

“It’s difficult for smaller girls when they come along and it’s predominantly boys,” says Maguire of the plan to create a girls-only minis section.

“Even though you think they would play well together at that age, they don’t necessarily when it comes to a small bit of rough and tumble.

“From this season onwards, we have a couple of senior women who have retired and we’re going to try to refocus on girls minis from U7s to U12s. It will be tough because there is no real structure in place for Leinster but we have good relationships with the majority of clubs around our area so we can do joint training sessions and have mini-blitzes to try and encourage young girls to come up and stick with it.

“I’ve seen myself that it’s hard for teenage girls or older girls to start if they’ve never played rugby or even sport before. We’re more likely to get a youths team in place if we grow it from our U7s upwards.”

While the IRFU’s treatment of the national women’s team has received plenty of criticism in recent times, O’Nolan and Maguire are positive about the state of girls rugby in Ireland.

As they look to add a new dimension to Clondalkin’s programme, there is real optimism.

“The popularity of women’s and girls’ rugby in Leinster alone is massive,” says Maguire. “It’s gone from Leinster provincials to Leinster U18s and now they have the structures for North Midlands and areas like that, just like with the boys. That shows the amount of players that are feeding in through the system.

“There are girls’ U14, U16, U18 leagues and with Division 1 and Division 2. That comes from girls seeing the Irish team do well, the provinces doing well. It comes from the impact the international players have on the girls when they come out and do a training session with them.

“The IRFU’s #GiveItATry campaign has had the provincial players and Irish players all over the country coaching girls. That’s so positive and it shows that those players want to see the changes happening and the numbers coming up.”

- This article was updated at 10.05pm to correct ‘Canada’s Jo Hull’ to ‘Hong Kong’s Jo Hull’.

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Murray Kinsella

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