There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, Oscar Wilde told us, and that’s not being talked about.
By that measure, Ireland’s women’s rugby team have had a bumper week. Following a resounding 45 points to nil dismantling of a hapless Wales nine days ago, the women’s team were near-ubiquitous in their promotion of their Pool B showdown at home to France on Saturday.
That it culminated in a heavy 41-point loss comes with its own baggage. Theirs is a war evolving on many fronts; the tactical struggle, fought in this instance against a vastly superior opposition in terms of ability and resources, and the strategic battle for relevance in a sports market becoming more competitively diverse by the week.
Thanks to the cursed pandemic, the women’s Six Nations fell upon a new structure, one which neatly fits outside the window of the men’s tournament. With necessity being the mother of all invention and all, it was a blank canvass to fill. The win against Wales was the perfect re-entry point for many sports fans who are less concerned with the societal issues of women in sport, rather than the next shiny thing to spend a Saturday afternoon on the couch watching.
Sport, for all its efforts to impact us on a more profound level, still remains a fast fashion industry. The cheaper and more available the product, the more of it we will easily consume. Watching Beibhinn Parsons and Eimear Considine run around — as opposed to through — Welsh defenders was refreshing, and a reminder of how exciting rugby can be when the emphasis is on skills and speed rather than power.
The problem with fast fashion, however, is just as quickly as we hop aboard a bandwagon, we disembark once we no longer have need for it. Ireland were competitive with France for 15 minutes on Saturday. After that, they looked as hapless as Wales had the week before.
The slimmest of pre-reading in advance of the game made us aware that there was quite a disparity in the “elite” status of the two squads; France are a team of semi-professionals, most of whom play in a semi-professional league. Ireland are a team of amateurs, many of whom have had no club rugby in over a year.
As a squad, they’ve had one game in 13 months. No amount of training camps can mitigate that. Most have full-time jobs. Some have young families. Even allowing for the recent acquisitions from the sevens squad (who have professional contracts, albeit only earning between €15-20,000 a year), for Ireland to have beaten France would’ve been a freak result.
Which is a shame. Had they at least made it a contest it would’ve capitalised nicely upon a week when the floor was theirs to showcase a game that pops up in the consciousness of Irish sports fans every other year. Having a willing corporate sponsor in Guinness was a good first step. So too is the ever increasing exposure new and traditional media outlets are willing to provide them.
Off the Ball, 2FM’s Game On, and the Second Captains podcast, amongst others, have all embraced the opportunity to give the women’s game a well-deserved platform, while avoiding the pat-on-the-head condescension that may have previously accompanied such air-time.
So to the papers, who should be keen to redress the gross imbalance that exists between column inches dedicated to men’s sport comparative to women’s. This can be seen, not just in rugby, but in terms of the coverage received of Irish players like Cora Staunton and Orla O’Dwyer who migrated to the semi-professional Australian Rules Football League down under.
The exploits of Rachel Blackmore and Leona Maguire exist on a different plain entirely. Their excellence has made them unignorable, but it reinforces the point; women in sport need to be that good to earn any recognition they get.
The failure of the women’s national football team to qualify for next year’s Euros was a huge disappointment, especially given they had navigated themselves into a position to do so. Ceding the goodwill these teams receive from a needy public is to lose relevance. It’s cruel, but all too true.
The women’s hockey team put the sport ‘on the map’ in the summer of 2018 with its unlikely run to a World Cup final. It should’ve ensured short-corners were part of our national sporting vocabulary. Three years on; we’re back to VAR and petty Twitter feuds.
Speaking to Joe Molloy on Off the Ball last week, former Irish international Niamh Briggs gave excellent context to any argument that professionalising the game of women’s rugby in Ireland might automatically close the gap between our women and those playing the game full-time in England, New Zealand, and France, insisting that though professionalism may be inevitable in the coming decade, the emphasis should be on solid foundations and structures at the lowest level, rather than rushing to pay players in a band-aid effort to achieve parity.
That’s tomorrow’s problem. Today’s remains that of relevance. Saturday’s defeat was not just an on-field loss, but, due to the optics of it, a setback in the battle for the hearts and minds of viewers who need stimulation more than ever.
If last week was Irish Women’s Rugby’s elevator pitch, they may have nailed the routine, just not the landing. Ubiquity is one thing, consistent quality quite another. A combination of the two could guarantee a permanent place in our living rooms. If they can’t see it, they can’t be it.