A long road ahead to continue taking women’s sport to next level

Twelve months on from Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand, what has changed for Irish women’s sport, asks Mary White.

On the morning of August 5, 2014, a year ago today, Andy Weir sprayed a dressing room in a Parisian suburb with the exact same air freshener he uses in the changing rooms in Ashbourne, County Meath, ahead of the Irish women’s rugby team’s home games.

The provincial flags the kitman from Bangor placed on the walls in Marcoussis at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup are also in the exact same spot, but the sign above the door is the most important of all. It reads: ‘The winning qualities of this team will be reflected by the standards we set’.

It’s the day Philip Doyle’s side are playing New Zealand in their second group game. It’s the first time Ireland have faced the four-time world champions on the 15s circuit, and as the Haka is laid out before them, there’s no nerves. Ireland’s strength and conditioning coach Marian Earls had joked the night before with captain Fiona Coghlan she would shave her head if they defeated the All Blacks, but Coghlan convinced Earls otherwise because she knew the win was in them.

In the stands amid the hundreds of fans who caught a plane, two trains and a bus to witness history in Marcoussis, were Irish men’s coach Joe Schmidt and his number 10 Johnny Sexton. They too had taken a liking to the manner in which Doyle’s players had readied themselves for battle.

In 30-plus degree heat, Ireland made history, winning 17-14. In beating the All Blacks, Coghlan, four-time World Cup veteran Lynne Cantwell and Niamh Briggs became household names. Their winning qualities were reflected in the standards they had set, but they didn’t just settle there.

And, even though Ireland went on to lose the World Cup semi-final to eventual champions England, the Irish women’s rugby team’s masterclass against the Kiwis put women’s sport in Ireland on a higher plane than ever before.

Last September, at half-time of the senior All-Ireland ladies football final between Dublin and Cork in Croke Park, Fiona Coghlan and her teammates were introduced to the 27,374-strong crowd. It was a gesture from one sport to another.

A hat tip for what the ladies with the oval ball had done for the collective — put female team sports on the map at national level. That same day, the Rebels made their own mark. Ten points down with 16 minutes left, they came back from the dead to win their ninth All-Ireland title in 10 years.

In December then, it was no surprise Cork became the first women’s team to be honoured with the RTÉ Sports Team of the Year award as voted by the public, and momentum was growing.

In January of this year, Stephanie Roche brought Irish women’s soccer onto the global stage, brushing shoulders with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the FIFA Ballon D’or Awards, where she was pipped by James Rodriguez for the Puskas Award.

The Peamount star’s volley against Wexford Youths in the Irish domestic league had garnered international attention. But apart from the little injection earlier this summer by the women’s hockey team during their exploits in Valencia for Rio 2016 qualification, the good news stories have been put to one side.

Perhaps, with the spotlight now featured more heavily on women’s sport given its growing profile, other less favourable news stories are coming to light.

For example, the Camogie Association’s coin toss affair between Dublin and Clare last week. The Puc Fada ski trip saga in Ulster. The rejected TG4 advert for the Ladies Gaelic Football Association’s championships showing a player cradling a football similar to that of a pregnant mother, with the tag line ‘The most important nine months of a woman’s life’.

It had been accidentally put into the public domain via social media, the role of which has also played its part in generating discussion on women’s sport, and with it both positive and negative headlines.

Of course then there’s the ongoing dual star dilemma which has seen a number of fixtures clashes arise this year so far, with Cork’s Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley forced to play two games for their county in both codes at senior level within two hours of each other.

But the Camogie Association has done its bit to prevent another clash on August 15, and must be commended. For all the negative press they’ve got in recent weeks, it’s fair to say, they appear to be the organisation most open to change, communication and a willingness to work with, and not against, the newly formed Women’s GPA.

The sweet smell of success emanating from Andy Weir’s air freshener and that of the Irish women’s rugby team win over New Zealand a year ago today has done much to bring to the fore the talents of Irish female athletes. But, it’s done a lot more than that. It’s opened the public’s eyes to the not so positivity stories, and that in it’s own way is just as invaluable.

Baseball player Frederick B Wilcox’s once said: “Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”

We’ve come so far, but have we really?

The women’s rugby team’s masterclass against Kiwis put women’s sport in Ireland on a higher plane than ever before


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