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'We have a perfect storm... The game is changing and we need to change with it'

As Irish women’s rugby rebuilds, the AIL and inter-pros will play a key role.

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THE IRFU’S REVIEW into why Ireland Women failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup continues and we can presume it will touch on aspects like a lack of match sharpness and difficulties handling the pressure of the recent qualifying tournament in Italy.

There is a growing sense that the inquest will lead to a change of coaching staff for Ireland, but perhaps the more important report being compiled in Irish women’s rugby right now is the one examining the state of the domestic game.

This review is “all-encompassing, right from the AIL all the way back to the grassroots and the connectivity up to high performance,” according to Colin McEntee, the IRFU’s director of rugby development. There is a huge amount to consider.

The women’s All-Ireland League has returned over the past fortnight from its pandemic-enforced hiatus and though newcomers Ballincollig made a strong start by beating Suttonians, fellow debutants Wicklow were thrashed 142-0 by Railway Union last weekend. Already, it seems clear that the trend of four strong clubs – Old Belvedere, UL Bohemians, Railway, and Blackrock – being streets ahead of the rest will continue this season.

Meanwhile, the recent inter-provincial championship featured plenty of exciting rugby but was unfortunately overshadowed by the furore caused by the changing facilities designated to Connacht before their clash with Ulster. 

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There is confusion within Irish rugby about the purpose the inter-pros serve and where they best fit into the calendar – another key aspect to figure out in this review.

The Women’s Six Nations is now set to move permanently into a standalone slot in April, while a new international competition, WXV, will take place in a September/October window every year from 2023 onwards.

Irish rugby must decide how best to organise its domestic rugby calendar to sync with Ireland’s demands – both providing the national team with players who are primed to perform, but also giving the clubs and provinces their chance to shine.

While lots of young girls had been taking up the sport pre-pandemic through initiatives like Give it a Try, X7s, and Play Rugby, there is also concern about how the Irish rugby pathway converts those youngsters into senior players.

In short, Irish women’s domestic rugby is standing at a point of uncertainty that could either result in sustainable development or be viewed as a crushing missed chance.

ul-bohemians-celebrate-try UL Bohs celebrate a try. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

“We have a perfect storm here,” says Railway Union chairperson Shirley Corcoran.

“This is a chance to start with a new view and properly connected pieces. We can’t just do what we’ve done before, we have to do something different. It will take the IRFU changing the modus operandi.

“We can’t just talk about a five-year plan because the game will not survive that, Ireland won’t be competitive. This has got to move dynamically with a different thought process. The game is changing and we need to change with it.”

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The format in this season’s expanded 10-team women’s AIL essentially highlights the issue of the top four being so much stronger than the others.

Everyone plays everyone else before Christmas and then in the New Year, the top four clubs will move into their own mini-league and play-offs, with the bottom six sides doing the same.

That format will be considered again ahead of next season but the real issue is helping the rest of the clubs catch Railway, Blackrock, Belvo, and Bohs.

Former Ireland international Fiona Hayes is the head coach of Cork-based Ballincollig, who have stepped up into the AIL this season and are running an ambitious women’s rugby programme.

“I had seen girls who live in Cork travelling to Bohs or even to Dublin at times to play AIL,” says Hayes. “We wanted to get the structures in place so girls from here, or people who come here to work or for college, can buy into Ballincollig.”

As with Wicklow, there is determination within Ballincollig to be competing with the top AIL sides sooner rather than later.

Niamh Briggs, another ex-Ireland player, succeeded Hayes as head coach of Bohs and says it’s welcome to have another Munster club in the AIL in the form of Ballincollig, while a Leinster team from outside Dublin is also very positive with Wicklow involved.

Briggs hopes to see more new clubs forcing their way into the AIL conversation in the future – there will be no relegation/promotion this season – but the next step is ensuring more consistent competition for the top four.

“No one wants to see the big scorelines and no one plays sport for that, on either side of the score,” says the IRFU’s McEntee. 

The lack of competitiveness has seen several Ireland international players moving abroad in order to improve, with English clubs increasingly attempting to lure the best Irish women to the strong Premier 15s competition.

colin-mcentee The IRFU's Colin McEntee. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The French league is also going from strength to strength, with Ireland tighthead prop Linda Djougang recently signing for Clermont.

The obvious solution for keeping all of the best players at home is making the AIL a stronger competition.

“We want a really competitive AIL,” says Old Belvedere captain Jenny Murphy, a former Ireland international. For the sport as a whole, the league needs to be tight and competitive.” 

Some of the so-called smaller clubs in the AIL have voiced frustration at losing players to the top sides in recent years, with some concern that the strongest clubs are stockpiling too much of the best talent.

Good players may even end up sitting on the bench when they could be starting for another club and it’s something the IRFU has been encouraged to look at.

“I’d like to see something in conjunction with the clubs where the spread of Ireland 15s and 7s players is across the board, not just one club getting 10 players who are contracted,” says Hayes.

“If we could get that spread across the teams, it would make it more competitive.”

Corcoran says that Railway do facilitate players moving to other Dublin-based clubs if they can get more game time elsewhere, but there is no doubt that their excellent programme means people are attracted to the set-up.

Briggs also points out that the societal reality of people moving to Dublin for work and college can’t be ignored.

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There are 91 clubs around Ireland that now offer the IRFU’s very successful ‘Give it a Try’ initiative, whereby girls who haven’t played rugby before can get a taste for the sport across an eight-week programme.

The hope is that a positive experience there sees young players permanently join rugby clubs, playing from minis, through the age-grades and on into senior rugby, but McEntee admits the IRFU is in the process of assessing this pathway.

“We’re asking. ‘Are they landing in clubland?” he says.

“Or is it 2,000 girls playing in 91 clubs and only 500 landing into clubland? If that’s the case, we will have to take a good, hard look at ourselves. But if we’re getting 70% or 80% in, then we know that we’re onto something.”

katie-fitzhenry-with-players-from-new-ross-and-navan-rfc The Give it a Try programme has been a great success. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While some clubs are excited to have new underage teams springing up now, one issue repeatedly highlighted by those involved in the women’s game is the drop-off rate when players have to move from U18s into senior rugby – a daunting prospect for many.

Hayes is currently working with the independent Rugby Academy Ireland to bring together an Irish U20 team and they hope to play London Irish next year. The IRFU have wished them well but aren’t involved in the project. 

For Hayes, developing some sort of formally-run U20 offering in women’s rugby would be a progressive step.

“There might not be enough clubs for an U20 competition but why not have an U20 inter-pros?” asks Hayes.

“That could help them step up to an Irish U20s team. I’ve seen a drop-off of really good players who leave the game at that stage. Some might come back at 21 but they’ve lost three key years of development.”

McEntee says the union has “a spotlight” on this drop-off and flags that the IRFU is now working on initiatives with several third-level institutions around the country in order to help stem that flow of players leaving the game.

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While the AIL clubs take great pride in helping to produce players for Ireland, there is a desire for the relationship to be more reciprocal.

Some Ireland 7s internationals simply never play for their clubs, while many 15s stars also get limited opportunity to feature in the AIL due to clashes with national team games or training camps.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been involved in Ireland, but once you’re called into camp, your involvement with the club can be limited,” says Murphy. “That’s a pity because it’s really enjoyable playing for your club.

“As good as training is, you cannot beat playing a match. That’s where you learn from mistakes, learn about making decisions. The AIL and the inter-pros are where you learn your trade and that cannot be beaten.”

There is also a wish within the league for Ireland’s coaching staff to be more visible by getting to AIL fixtures in person more often.

“I’d love to see the Ireland coaching staff coming out to the games, enjoying the games, talking to players, and getting that buzz going,” says Hayes.

“That used to happen when I played, you might look over and see an Irish coach but I don’t think that happens anymore. I’m not saying they don’t view the games at home.

“If players are spotted in the AIL, they have a chance to get up there to the national squad. I don’t think a lot of players feel like the AIL is the way to progress.”

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Another source of frustration within clubland is that the IRFU’s sub-committee for women’s rugby doesn’t have a single representative from the 10 AIL clubs.

Instead, they created their own independent Women’s All-Ireland League committee that is not part of the IRFU.

Last year, the AIL clubs wrote to the IRFU seeking representation on the union’s sub-committee for women’s rugby but didn’t get a response. The IRFU says the letter was unsigned and that when they checked with the clubs, “a significant number had no knowledge of the letter or the information contained in it.” The union “could not respond to a letter which wrongly claimed to represent their views.”

a-general-view-of-the-aviva-stadium-ahead-of-the-game The AIL clubs would like a seat at the committee level. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Corcoran and Railway have been consistently vocal about the need for change at committee level if the AIL clubs are to grow and improve.

“Without a doubt, we need to get the right people in the room with the right expertise and right knowledge,” she says. “Participation rugby is working so well in the provinces but we really need to hone the high-performance level of our game.

“That means the governance has to change. There are people banging on the door looking to get in but they’re being asked to go through the existing structures.

“The IRFU have to get uncomfortable with the people in the room, they should challenge themselves.

“There’s a perception that the squad of 2014 [who reached the World Cup semi-finals] are being pushed away – why do they feel that way? Why is that happening? If the IRFU really mean they’re going to change, they will bring people into that room who they are uncomfortable with.”

The IRFU’s McEntee has a different view on this matter.

“There’s lots said about the committee structures but it absolutely works because there’s massive connectivity to the provinces and massive connectivity to the clubs,” he says.

“The message coming up and down through those channels is really, really good. There’s good debate and good discussions, quite open and honest.”

The union says a Women’s All Ireland League forum allows all the clubs to discuss competition issues and possible improvements, with further meetings planned this season.

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Most people in the game will point out that the AIL clubs – and clubs with aspirations of being part of the league – simply need more support.

What does support look like, though? Money is tighter than ever for the IRFU after the pandemic and it seems unlikely they will flood more of it into the women’s game.

When the IRFU laid out its 10-team model for the AIL back in 2019, it set aside just under €10,000 per club per season if they fulfilled certain criteria like providing physio and strength and conditioning support for players, but clubs point out that it costs well over €100,000 to have a strong programme.

Obviously, the clubs themselves have to find funds to run their women’s teams and Hayes says Ballincollig have been brilliant in that regard.

“It might seem minimal but when we went up to Cooke last weekend, we were put up in the hotel next to the grounds,” says Hayes of Ballincollig’s support. “The girls got dinner, breakfast, anything they wanted.

“That might seem normal in the men’s game but it’s not in the women’s game.”

fiona-hayes Fiona Hayes is the head coach of Ballincollig. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Corcoran says Railway have worked hard on their budgets and undertaken plenty of fundraising, as well as engaging sponsors and benefactors, in order to provide the club’s male and female clubs with everything they need to perform.

The IRFU are unlikely to start sinking more cash into the domestic game but the clubs point out that there are other ways of offering support.

The coaching of coaches is one theme that is repeatedly brought up. The union runs a monthly course for AIL coaches and has development officers working hard in this area, but there is always more that could be done.

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Briggs and Hayes both have ambitions of being full-time professional coaches and are voracious in engaging with the sport.

The Bohs boss is “the most nerdy person ever” by her own admission and enjoyed learning from Matt Brown and Mike Storey as part of the Munster Women coaching staff for the inter-pros. She says Munster academy boss Ian Costello and Bohs director of rugby Cathal Sheridan have also been very supportive.

“If you continue to put coaches into positions where they have a network, can observe [professional] training sessions, and pick people’s brains, that’s really important,” says Briggs.

“You know about rugby and how you want to play but it’s learning how to implement it, how to manage and coach people. Those are really big things that we as ex-players don’t really have that full understanding of.”

Murphy points out that coaches simply copying and pasting from each other is far from ideal and echoes that coaching the coaches is key for women’s rugby. She praises Belvo coach Johnny Garth for his open-mindedness and lack of ego, and has enjoyed her own foray into coaching with Naas RFC.

While McEntee admits the scope for further financial support is “limited,” he stresses that the IRFU is focused on continuing its work in coach development, highlighting that it’s not just about 10 AIL teams.

“We have another 75 adult women’s teams outside the AIL playing and if you look at the women’s U18s, there is a lot of talent coming through,” says McEntee. “We’ve got to manage that growth and sustainability.”

McEntee regularly cites the need for sustainability, with another of the IRFU’s criteria for AIL clubs being that they also run minis and underage girls sections in order to create their own in-club pathways.

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While Briggs completely understood the recent anger about the changing facilities Connacht had at Donnybrook, she was frustrated at how the controversy overshadowed a brilliant finale to the inter-pros as Munster beat Leinster to the title.

“That was one of the highest calibre domestic games we’ve seen in Ireland,” says Briggs. “That was a proper good game of rugby.”

The inter-pros took place without the Ireland squad, who trained and prepared for their World Cup Qualifier competition separately, with the IRFU saying that was in order to maintain a Covid bubble. 

niamh-briggs UL Bohs head coach Niamh Briggs.

Briggs believes that so many fresh faces and “rough diamonds” getting exposure for their provinces will ultimately be very positive for Irish rugby, but she is similar to many others in wondering what the inter-pros are meant to be moving forward.

“One question I’d really like to see answered is ‘What is the aim of the inter-pros?’” says Murphy, who played for Leinster in the recent championship.

“Is it for players to get selected for Ireland or is it for development? What purpose does it serve and are we better to put that time and effort into clubs?”

Hayes is passionate about the inter-pros and believes they should involve more than three games in the future but she and Briggs echo Murphy’s sentiment in questioning exactly what they are intended to provide in the women’s game.

“I think the inter-pro set-up has to be a springboard into international rugby,” adds Briggs.

McEntee is also of the mind that the recent championship was brilliant for getting a gauge on the depth of women’s rugby and points out that the inter-pros allow players from beyond the AIL to make a name for themselves.

“I’d love to see the inter-pros supporting a really healthy club competition and leading into international rugby,” he says.

“You’re going to get bolters outside the 10 AIL clubs and they might have a chance with the provinces even if they don’t have access to an AIL club.”

Where the inter-pros sit in the calendar will be key and McEntee’s open-mindedness in this regard is encouraging.

“There will be a lot of flexibility with the calendar going forward, it’s all up in the air,” he says.

“It might end up completely different to the men’s season if that’s how it links into the national team programme.

“There has to be a feeder to the national team and that season plan will absolutely be changed to reflect that. The start dates and finish dates could be completely different to the men’s.”

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Hitting rock bottom – as Ireland have done with the failure to qualify for the World Cup – must spark a rebuild. The domestic game will be essential in that regard for Irish women’s rugby.

While history might tell us that it is wishful thinking, the hope is that all parties can now work cohesively and creatively to create a more synced-up and successful pathway that helps to produce a better Ireland team and a healthier domestic game.

erin-mcconnell-and-jenny-murphy Jenny Murphy on the charge for Belvo. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

While financial constraints must be considered, there is a need to show ambition. The likes of Murphy and Hayes would love to see Irish clubs or provinces facilitated in playing games against English and French sides in the new future.

“The lack of ambition has killed the women’s game at times,” says Murphy. “Women’s rugby is a viable way to make money if you’re smart about it.”

McEntee understands that the IRFU has to improve certain things but he also points out that the clubs themselves must all work hard if Irish women’s rugby is going to be sustainable.

“We have to put our hands up and take responsibility, but so does everyone,” he says.

“Clubs have to help themselves as well because you’re not going to survive with stabilisers on you. The environment and structures have to enable girls to go into youths and on into adult rugby because it has to be sustainable.” 

With amateur players, coaches and volunteers holding this whole thing up, Irish women’s rugby simply must begin to deliver more for its stakeholders.

“Now is the chance, you can really go back to the drawing board,” says Hayes. 

“Let’s look at the game and how we’re going to make it better.”

- This article was updated at 3.58pm to reflect the IRFU’s position on the letter it received from the Women’s All-Ireland League committee, and to correct an error regarding last weekend’s clash between Railway Union and Wicklow.

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey chat all things Connacht, Munster, Leinster and Ulster — and welcome back the AIL — on The42 Rugby Weekly


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