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'It will be absolutely huge for sport here' - The legacy of the Women's Rugby World Cup

Elaine Buckley of the Fair Game podcast spoke to The42 this week.

Ireland will hope to get their hands on this next month.
Ireland will hope to get their hands on this next month.
Image: INPHO/Gary Carr

IN JUST OVER a fortnight’s time, the biggest tournament Ireland has hosted since the 2006 Ryder Cup gets under way.

The fact tickets for Ireland’s pool games at the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup sold out months in advance, and that extra seating needed to be brought in, is a sure sign that the tournament will be a commercial success.

But there are two more key indicators by which Ireland 2017 will be measured: How far can the hosts go and what are the long-term implications for grassroots sport in this country.

In terms of the latter:

“I think it’s going to be absolutely huge,” Elaine Buckley of the Fair Game podcast told The42 this week.

“You can see the effort that has been put into Ireland’s home games over the past two years, where there are mini-matches at half-time and teams coming up in their club kits forming guards of honour before the games.

“What’s really special about this tournament is that, wearing the number 10 jersey for the hosts is the IRFU’s women’s development executive; it’s actually Nora Stapleton’s job to promote rugby at grassroots, so she is channelling all this energy on and off the field into growing the sport.

“Then you have someone like Sophie Spence who, for about a year and a half now, has been running the Spence Rugby Academy.

“That sees her going to clubs all around the country and talking to young players who might not necessarily know that there is a path for them.

Then they see the World Player of the Year nominee coming into their club and working on the tackle bags and on drills. It’s just so inspirational.

“The pool matches are sold out and I think that’s down to clubs who have seen the dates, booked tickets and have organised for all the young girls to come up and see the matches.”

Alongside Emily Glen, Buckley set up to the Fair Game podcast in February 2016 in response to the relative lack of coverage of Irish sportswomen.

Coverage is certainly not something Buckley — who works with RTÉ on The Sunday Game and Against The Head — sees as being a problem for this year’s tournament.

“I think televising the Six Nations has been so important.”

“I work in RTÉ and I’ll be working on the World Cup but I think the fact that this year’s Six Nations was televised and the timing of those games — Friday nights or Sunday lunchtime — helped the games pick up a lot of casual viewers.

“And the thing about the women’s rugby team is that you just have to watch them once and you’re absolutely sold, the quality is that good.

The Ireland team celebrate The 2013 team celebrate their Grand Slam. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I know that from my own dad. I brought him down to Ashbourne a couple of years ago. It was a great game and they beat England and, since then, any time the team is on television he’s texting me about team selection, etc.

“It’s like all sport, you just have to see it and you’ll fall in love with it.”

Buckley also pays short shrift to anyone trying to compare the men’s game to the women’s.

“I think it’s mind-numbingly stupid that people compare the sports.

Why would you compare something that has had such an exponential head start to something that is very much in growth mode.

“It just doesn’t make sense, they’re two very different sports.

“Personally I prefer watching the women’s game because it’s less about how many kilos you have going into a scrum and the actual match play is that bit more interesting.

“It’s like comparing a carrot and an apple, they’re both good for you, that should be enough.”

Sold out

Given how quickly tickets sold out, Irish fans clearly agree with Buckley on the quality on show, though she can’t help but wonder if organisers would have been better off taking a chance on a bigger venue, especially considering the growth in popularity of the sport.

“It’s actually a real shame that it has sold out so far in advance, I don’t think the venue’s big enough.

“If you saw the Six Nations decider between Ireland and England, they filled Donnybrook.

Nora Stapleton with Hazel Tubic Fans take in Ireland v New Zealand at the UCD Bowl. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Now, I know why they’ve chosen the venues because of the structure of the pool stages and warm-up/down times, so Donnybrook might not necessarily have worked but the RDS might have?

“I was listening to Jenny Murphy and Ailish Egan interviewed on Second Captains over the weekend and Ailish was saying that her friends haven’t actually got tickets.

“I think there are going to be an awful lot of people left disappointed and, while it’s great in one way that it’s sold out, there’s a niggling thought of what might have been, especially when the notion of walk-ups was quashed at the Autumn internationals last year.

“For the first game I actually went as a walk-up — it was in the UCD Bowl — and there was a queue around the block. People missed the kick-off and they ran out of match programmes.

I think that was a big turning point. As an Irish fan, you can’t expect to just swan along on the day anymore, you have to prepare for these events.”

The women’s team came to the attention of more than just rugby fans earlier this year when, ahead of a key Six Nations clash with France, the IRFU decided to withdraw Sene Naoupu, Alison Miller and Hannah Tyrrell from XVs duty to link up with the sevens side.

Buckley, while frustrated that Ireland couldn’t play against France with a full complement, thinks that it was a positive move for both the XVs and sevens teams.

“I think with the sevens, even the way it’s been identified as an Olympic priority for Ireland, it’s a really great way to get a team into the Games.

“The sevens event at the last Olympics was brilliant. In the men’s you had this great underdog story and in the women’s you have Australia and Charlotte Caslick just running amok. It was so good to watch.

“Ireland were so close to qualifying and they’ll go again.

“What happened with the sevens during the Six Nations, and this comes back to one of my other pet peeves about women’s sport in Ireland, is that people saw a headline and went to town on it without ever having an interest in sevens or XVs before.

IrelandÕs Sene Naoupu celebrates with try scorer Nora Stapleton Sene Naoupu was withdrawn from the France game for sevens duty. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“And look, it was the equivalent of a Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, etc being whipped out of an Irish squad. Sene, Alison and Hannah are three world-class players.

“I was annoyed to see them go but I also knew there was a panel of 30-odd people.

That France victory then meant so much because it was so hard-fought, the weather was atrocious and there was a full crowd out in Donnybrook.

“It was really, really close but they ground it out with the squad that they had and that’s what you need going into a World Cup.

“Our squad is used to a six or seven-day turnaround, more during some weeks of the Six Nations, and in this tournament there are going to be four-day turnarounds so they need a dynamic squad.

“The way it was done, there could have been more notice especially to the players and the press but it was an important decision for the future of Irish rugby.”

Success

So it looks like the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup will be a success commercially and is already having a positive effect on the grassroots game here.

But can Ireland make it three out of three and secure success on the field too?

“I absolutely think they can [reach a final] and, crucially, I think they think they can too.

“In 2014, the aim was to get out of the group, pulling off the impossible in beating New Zealand and, all of a sudden they’re in a semi-final going ‘oh shit, we’re in a semi-final’.

“Whereas this time, certainly anyone I’ve spoken to or heard interviewed, they’re going out to win it.

Niamh Briggs leads the team out Niamh Briggs was ruled out of the final three games of the Six Nations with injury. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“World rankings suggest they are not the favourites but that’s not a bad position to be in, especially with the structure of the tournament.

“You don’t want to be leaving it up to chance to be the best second place finisher, especially as it could come down to points difference on the last day so I can’t see them taking any chances.

The structure of the matches for Ireland — Australia first, Japan second and then finish off with France — is lining up really well for them.

“They’ll have learned a lot from the loss to the England game in the Six Nations this year, even more than the 2014 semi-final, and I really think that will stand to them in the tournament.”

Keep up to date with all The42′s Women’s Rugby World coverage

About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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