First class ambition for high-flying girls

Women’s rugby in Ireland in riding the crest of a wave — and the benefits may carry all the way to Rio in 2016

First class ambition for high-flying girls

Dublin airport. A jiffy’s déjà vu. “It’s overbooked. We’ll have to send half of you out later.”

The women in front could easily recall such days they were nobody’s priorities – slumped on overnight trains with internationals next day. Gemma Crowley reckoned faces had fallen far enough though. “Only joking… we’ve been upgraded to business class.”

So the departure of Ireland’s rugby squad to Hong Kong and Guangzhou for a brace of Sevens tournaments felt more like an arrival.

“We were like children,” team manager Crowley admits. Eight of them had grand slammed the women’s game into public consciousness this year. “Gillian Bourke, the hooker for the 15s, is video analyst for the sevens,” pointed out Crowley, who looks after that squad too. “So there were nine of the Six Nations girls travelling. It was a nice little reward.”

A celebration became a continuation. China was Ireland’s bow at an IRB Sevens, yet they never looked raw in seasoned company.

“To be honest, our goals going over were surpassed,” says Crowley. “We set the standards as high as possible, but coach Jon Skurr had two days with the squad beforehand. In Hong Kong we won the Bowl and you think that’s great. But then we go to Guangzhou and beat the Dutch – who are full-time – and the world champions Australia. It just shows you we have massive potential – a lot of work to do but massive potential.”

After the 16-hour return flight, Gemma’s car broke down in Cashel and she had to be towed back to her home in Cork. Metaphor alert – was Ireland’s long journey to the upper tier of the sport about to be threatened by a breakup in the women’s game? Scotland and Wales had campaigned for a Six Nations split, sick of hammerings by England and France and keen to curb spending on internationals. Ireland’s new status would put it in an elite group of three but with a slashed calendar and diminished profile.

After howls of protest from many quarters, the Six Nations Council has vetoed the plan, maintaining the current format. It is the decision Crowley wanted. “We’re talking about building up the credibility of women’s rugby constantly and for that to continue I think it’s massively important for it to mirror the men’s game.”

She argues that cost-cutting at elite level will prove a false economy if the next generation are denied role models.

“The IRFU absolutely wants to see the Six Nations continue the way it is. From Ireland’s point of view, we’re trying to grow the game at all levels. Different unions may have different objectives. Some see Sevens as the way forward for them.”

The arrival of Sevens at the Rio Olympics has given the sport an unprecedented platform. With finances scarce, many unions are prioritising the gold rush. Even in Ireland’s hour of glory, it can’t be ignored that England allowed a host of established names skip this year’s Six Nations to focus on the Sevens circuit and the June World Cup.

Crowley worked in London last summer as a venue manager and saw up-close the lure of gold. “Being an Olympic sport is so exciting. The IRFU have announced a €1.1m per annum program. For any women’s sport to get that is massive.”

The Sports Council has also contributed to the medal hunt. “It obviously believes women’s rugby has the potential to reach podium over in Rio and that is really positive. But equally, Sevens is only in the Olympics until 2020. You don’t want to cut your nose off to spite your face. I have no doubt the IRB are going to ensure it will be extremely successful and that Sevens will continue as an Olympic sport for generations, but we have to be realistic for the moment. I think the future of women’s rugby is still the 15-a-side game. And the beauty of the 15s game is that there is a place for everyone.”

Crowley is back in an airport, at a dinner at Cork International Airport Hotel to receive a Cork Southside & District Sports Award. She talks fondly of the women behind the Irish game’s spring rising. “Claire Molloy, who has just completed her medical finals – it just shows the commitment. Claire Keohane, doing her finals in physiotherapy. They manage to juggle it all and they do it so well. They never let the pressure get to them. I can’t speak highly enough of them. They are fantastic role models, not only for young females but for young kids full-stop throughout the country.”

The kids are noticing. “There is a club up in Belfast trying to put an underage girls side together for months and they’ve had 12 or 13 out training. The Tuesday after we played France, they had 53 girls out playing rugby.”

Girls with first-class inspiration.

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