ALISON DONNELLY: Now to take next step

Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan is probably still smiling, having become the first Irish skipper to lift the Women’s 6 Nations title in Italy yesterday.

Coghlan is a 10-year veteran of this Irish side, and having come through the bad old days of heavy defeats, she, and fellow veterans Lynne Cantwell and Joy Neville, deserve all of the accolades and success that come their way.

What happens next is now vital for the growth of the women’s game in this country.

A quick glance at the numbers highlights the need to exploit the national team’s success to ensure this win is not a once-off.

The latest IRFU figures show that there are, at best, 2,000 adult women’s players active in Ireland. While the development of the game at youth level is starting to pick up, Ireland are — much like most of the other Six Nations countries — finding that this avenue is incredibly slow and difficult to maintain through to adult level.

Ireland and Italy are the only two sides not to have fielded at U20s level ever in their history and Ireland have not fielded at “A” level for some time. That has to change.

There are a number of reasons for this, resources and funding being two, but the lack of a wider pool of players capable of stepping up at that level is another.

This year, Ireland were forced to look overseas to develop their playing pool and the reemergence of the Irish Exiles team was seen by some as a return to the days where Ireland’s AIL Clubs were simply not capable of producing the quality needed for the national side to compete at the top of the game.

A quick look at this season’s lop-sided Division 1 league results highlighted a worrying slide in standards at Ireland’s top clubs where three sides (UL Bohemian, Old Belvedere and Highfield) surged clear of the field, in a campaign where some sample scores such as 69-12, 53-0, 69-3 and 55-3 capture the difficulties Irish coach Philip Doyle has in increasing the playing depth in his squad.

Irish players point out rightly that full integration into the IRFU three years ago has hugely benefited them, as access to top coaches, programmes and training resources has transformed their fitness and skills level. That is absolutely right, but the benefits of IRFU integration must now be felt at club level and the union needs to flex its resources to capitalise on the huge visibility its leading players are getting.

Much is often made in Ireland of the Katie Taylor effect and the interest in women’s boxing as a result of her Olympic success. With schools and age-grade programmes for girls rugby being accelerated, similarly now is the time to pounce on a newfound interest in women’s rugby.

Ireland also have another shot at further interest later this year when its Sevens side competes at the World Cup in Moscow. With Irish Sports Council funding expected to be confirmed to allow a dedicated women’s programme to be funded in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics, Sevens will prove another excellent catalyst to grow women’s playing numbers. Sevens, and the potentially harmful impact it could have on the women’s 15s game, is a thorny issue for the IRB but in Ireland, where numbers are small, the more women that pick up an oval shaped ball, no matter what the format, the better.

I hope to see the IRFU seize the day and do a number of things in the wake of Ireland’s success. These include putting in place a much stronger club league structure (not packing it into an eight-week period before Christmas, as happened this season), investing in and funding a viable Ireland U20s side, developing standards at university level and ensuring Ireland at senior level have more test matches. At the end of last year’s Six Nations, Ireland didn’t play a single game until the start of 2013.

* Alison Donnelly is head of communications at Wasps and runs women’s rugby website

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