With so much sport still to be played to get the 2019-20 campaign in the books once the Covid-19 pandemic relents, thoughts of 20-21 seem a distant prospect right now but not for Ballincollig RFC.
The Cork city club are already planning for exciting times ahead next season when they will join an expanded, new-look Energia Women’s All-Ireland League, one of two clubs alongside Wicklow RFC to be added to the current eight-team elite division.
Both clubs came through a rigorous application process before getting the green light in December from the IRFU to take their place in club rugby’s top flight, but Ballincollig’s team manager Tamsin Richards explained that the hard work is only just beginning.
“It’s a big achievement for the girls, they’ve worked really hard so it’s good to get in there and it will be all hands on deck to get ready for next season,” Richards told the Irish Examiner.
“We’re going to need to do some fundraising because of the extra costs involved next season with travelling and overnight stays and so on and we’re getting together a women’s committee, so that will be a separate entity within the club, making independent decisions for women’s rugby.”
Both Ballincollig and Wicklow had to satisfy a number of criteria laid out by the IRFU to ensure they were suitable candidates to join the likes of Railway Union and UL Bohemian in the top flight, and Irish Rugby’s women’s development manager Amanda Greensmith explained that if those criteria had not been met, the Women’s AIL would have stayed at its current complement.
“We weren’t fixated on the number of teams, more the quality of the applications from the clubs,” former Ireland international Greensmith said.
“So we weren’t exactly committed to expanding it but were ensuring that if the quality was there then the opportunity was also there to expand the competition.
“Ballincollig and Wicklow’s applications were very comprehensive and their interviews when they came and sat across from us to outline how they would approach things were very impressive. In some cases, they were already doing what was required to be a positive part of the women’s AIL.”
Amongst other things the IRFU wanted a sufficient standard applied to an applicant club’s facilities, coaching, provision of medical support and strength and conditioning for players up to international level as well as evidence of club sustainability, including age-grade structures to ensure a full player pathway through to senior level.
Greensmith, from Charleville and a former development officer in Munster before she succeeded Nora Stapleton in the IRFU’s national role, was particularly impressed by Ballincollig’s commitment to meeting the criteria and much more.
“The panel spoke very passionately about what they were going to do and how they were going to do it, and I think it was the level of thought that had gone into the application and how that came across on the night. Also, the recognition of what it would take to be a team capable of competing in the AIL certainly came across, that they were fully aware of the undertaking, that was certainly impressive.”
For Richards and the Ballincollig women, there is great anticipation about the opportunities that lie ahead for them and their club.
“This is the first time Ballincollig have been in the AIL, men or women, so it’s going to be an exciting time for the whole club, not just the women. The club are 100% behind us, there has been a lot of work done recently as part of our 10-year development plan for the facilities at Tanner Park, the first pitch has been floodlit and the other pitches are being redeveloped because they have been unplayable at times. The men’s team have been very supportive, offering assistance and coming over and working with us, sometimes position-specific coaching, so there’s a lot of support there.”
Ballincollig have advertised for a new head coach for the next chapter with current incumbent Tom Nolan becoming an assistant while he completes his IRFU Stage 4 coaching qualification and team manager Richards, a longstanding back-rower currently sidelined following surgery on an ACL knee injury, said the search was on for experienced AIL players to augment a young squad.
“We want to develop the players we have because there’s a great team here at the moment and some very good skills within that. They are definitely AIL-worthy and we’d like to bring in some new players as well, just for the experience of having already played there and knowing what happens and the commitment required, what it’s going to take, in the gym and on the training field as well as the games.
“So it’s right to try and get the perfect balance between the two, with a good few older, experienced players and the newer, younger players as well. I’d say we have an average age in the team of around 22 at the moment, so it’s very young and there are a lot of promising players there.”
Tapping into talent new to the sport as well as having come up through the mini and junior ranks, which itself boasts strong numbers and is looking to attract more through the IRFU’s Give It A Try scheme now widened to attract girls into clubs between the ages of eight and 14.
“There are a lot of women coming to us looking to get involved. We’ve had players from tag rugby who have enjoyed that and want to give 15s a go, and there are four or five on the team who had never played before and now they’re playing division one and looking to play in the AIL.
“A long-term plan is to have a girls minis section separate from the boys. We have players on our team who started out with the boys in the club’s minis but the aim is to have an all-girls section.
“We’re also working with Munster Rugby in getting people into the schools around Ballincollig with a sevens programme and that’s great. There are exciting times ahead.”