Ireland’s pathway to joining the big three of women’s international rugby

New Zealand, England, and Canada are the standard bearers of women’s international rugby, but Irelandareclosing fast. Edward Newman asks what does the IRFU need to do to make the leap into elite company?
Ireland’s pathway to joining the big three of women’s international rugby

Women’s rugby in Ireland has never enjoyed a higher profile: Grand Slam winners in 2013, Six Nations champions two years later, Sevens team qualification for the 2018 World Cup and grassroots participation numbers in a very healthy state. Plus, IRFU funding in the last 12 months is up 25%.

With the World Cup being staged in Dublin and Belfast until August 25, the popularity of the game may rise again and, with the sold-out signs already in situ for all of Ireland’s pool games, the omens are looking very positive for the women’s game.

According to IRFU performance director, David Nucifora, this is the “best-prepared” Irish team to enter a Rugby World Cup. Incremental steps have been taken in the last three years to make Ireland a world-class team but breaking into the upper echelons of the game — the world’s top three to be precise — will demand further investment, though Nucifora’s influence and vision since his appointment cannot be underlined enough either. The Australian has shaken up Irish rugby and has been instrumental, for example, in talent-spotting, particularly some of the country’s best ladies footballers and helping them make the transition to the oval ball.

England, New Zealand and Canada are ahead of Ireland in the official World Rugby rankings and the question now is what steps do Nucifora and the IRFU need to take to help Ireland become a top three side?

England’s ladies turned professional last January (though full-time contracts will end for them after this World Cup), and look odds-on to win the coveted trophy in Ravenhill and dominate the world game for the foreseeable future. New Zealand and Canada may have something to say about that — and Ireland, too, are always capable of causing an upset. Beating New Zealand at the 2014 Rugby World Cup is proof of Ireland’s quality, a result that will go down in the annals of Irish sport as one of this country’s greatest days.

Ireland players, from left, Ashleigh Baxter, Niamh Briggs and Nora Stapleton celebrate victory over New Zealand at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Picture: Aurélien Meunier/Sportsfile
Ireland players, from left, Ashleigh Baxter, Niamh Briggs and Nora Stapleton celebrate victory over New Zealand at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Picture: Aurélien Meunier/Sportsfile

The catalyst for the rise in the game’s popularity was the 2013 Grand Slam, according to one of its heroes against the silver fern three years ago, Laura Guest, the recently appointed Munster head coach.

Guest, a Grand Slam winner in 2013, also points to the need to implement adult development sides, ones that can help bridge the gap between Ireland and the elite.

“The next big step will have to be the formation of an U20 side and maybe an Ireland A side — that’s where we’re still lagging behind. England have an U20 side, an A side and senior set-up, so, by the time they represent England at senior level, they’re fairly experienced internationals. We’re not fortunate to have that luxury.”

Amanda Greensmith is working at grassroots level across Munster and has been instrumental in helping grow the game in schools and in developing age-grade sides across many clubs in the province. In her capacity as women’s community development rugby officer, the Ballyhea-born former Ireland international sees the Sevens game and the IRFU’s continued investment in the shorter version of the game as key to helping foster success of the women’s long game.

“I think tremendous work has been done over a number of years to get the Ireland senior (15s) team to where it is,” says Greensmith. “Beating New Zealand at the last World Cup is a testament to where the game has gone. When we look at the success of the Sevens teams, for example, in the relative short time that they have been on the international circuit, a lot of hard work has gone in to get the girls to that standard. With their current ranking and what they’re achieving, Ireland Sevens is competing exceptionally well. Hopefully, with further development and further experience we can make that step in the longer version of the game.”

Guest also pays tribute to the Sevens team, a professional outfit on the world circuit that has helped produce players for Tom Tierney’s World Cup side. Guest has also witnessed how girls from other codes such as ladies football and basketball have a transferable skill-set for rugby and the Sevens game.

“The Sevens has been the ground from which we have a bridge to cross from other sports. Louise Galvin, a Kerry footballer and Ireland basketball international, and Wicklow footballer Lucy Mulhall, who is captain of the Sevens side at present, are examples of girls from other codes who’ve made the transition seamlessly. Alice Miller, who played ladies football and was an 800m athlete, is also a fine rugby player. There is crossover and the Sevens route is the most friendly route if you like to make that switch.”

Guest, like Greensmith, sees the England model as the one to follow if Ireland are to break into the top three. Even competing with New Zealand will always be a challenge.

“In January, England went professional in the 15s game which is a super opportunity for any person with the sole goal of retaining the World Cup,” says Guest. “They are professional in Sevens game too. You need to look at external factors, too, to understand how England can make this kind of investment. The RFU has a bigger budget than the IRFU. The population is bigger in England and they benefit from Lottery funding that we don’t get in Ireland. A lot of factors are not in control of the IRFU either.

“New Zealand and Canada would be quite similar to Ireland. It’s the national game in New Zealand but in Ireland we are up against Gaelic games. There are exceptional athletes playing ladies football and camogie throughout the country though, many of whom would make it at rugby. New Zealand will always have rugby as their national sport and they’re incredible Sevens and 15s players, they have that advantage over us in that sense as well.”

Both Greensmith and Guest see a huge jump in the popularity of rugby since they started representing Ireland. It’s a different world now to when they started out, and the profile of the current women’s team has never been higher. For example, on the day the 2017 Ireland RWC squad was announced, head coach Tom Tierney and his captain, Niamh Briggs, dominated radio and television headlines and their press conference was the main lead across many of the following day’s newspapers. Of course, social media captured the announcement almost instantly.

Tom Tierney
Tom Tierney

“The landscape has changed in a positive way,” says Greensmith. “With more rugby than ever on TV, it increases the profile of the game. And what’s brilliant is that when you go into schools and meet girls they’re talking about Niamh Briggs, Jenny Murphy, Mags Reilly and others. They have their own role models, fantastic role models in the game to look up to, female role models which is really good. They know their names, they know their faces and that only adds to their aspirations to one day follow in their footsteps.

“It has been brilliant what has been achieved down through the years. I started at Charleville and moved on to Shannon and played with Munster and Ireland for a number of years. You can see the progression that has been made. It’s testament to the time and effort girls give to the game.”

Greensmith adds: “I played in the 2006 World Cup in Canada. You couldn’t compare the media coverage. We’d very little exposure, but the way social media and how news is communicated now on so many platforms, there are many ways to engage people that maybe wasn’t there in 2006. In 2014 there was a huge amount of coverage around that World Cup. The girls beating New Zealand added to that. It’s so much more accessible to get news out there and create profiles for the game.”

Guest reiterates the importance of the 2013 Grand Slam win as key to the game’s growth. “The fact that Ireland is hosting the Rugby World Cup makes it more topical. In 2006 Ireland weren’t performing anywhere near as well as they are now. In 2010 we had made good progress but still far behind to where we are now. We finished eighth in RWC 2006, seventh in RWC 2010, but the catalyst for all this publicity and people getting behind it was the Grand Slam in 2013 and finishing fourth at the 2014 RWC. That was a massive step up.

“Now more than ever there is more time being put in the women’s team. The girls have been together for far more sessions than they were in 2014. It’s a constantly improving model.”

After winning the Grand Slam, something stirred in the country, according to Guest. “That win was the catalyst for it. The profile of the game rose about that time. I found that where I live I was a nobody. But then there was an explosion of coverage around 2013 and suddenly people are recognising you on the street. What better way of getting people into the women’s game than being successful. There is massive work being done at branch level by the women’s development officers. The only way to grow it is to get people playing it at a young age.”

Greensmith sees increasing participation levels in Munster, particularly since that Grand Slam win four years ago. “Year on year there has been increased participation. You see new underage girls teams starting in the last few seasons through an initiative with the IRFU called ‘Give it a Try’. We’ve seen new mini-teams at U10 and U12 level start up. The girls can play with the boys in mini-rugby but I suppose some of the girls would prefer to play on girls only teams and we’re beginning to see this come to fruition with these U10 and U12 girls teams starting.”

Picture: Sportsfile
Picture: Sportsfile

Adds Greensmith: “Last year Skibbereen started up girls rugby. Clonakilty has started up an age-grade section. Bandon, too, has started up age-grade teams. Rugby officers are going into schools and there appears to be an appetite there for underage rugby. We’re also beginning to see it at Ballincollig RFC and Highfield. Shoots of development are springing up in rural and urban areas.

“We in Munster Rugby are looking to support the clubs out there that are hosting girls sections. It’s about helping to make the clubs that are in existence sustainable and create those pathways for the girls right the way through from mini to adult rugby and colleges. It’s also about looking to develop further into areas that may not have been traditional or may not have had girls rugby. That would very much be a target and it’s about building that sustainability and that growth in both rural and city areas to encourage girls to take up and play the game.”

And all that success is just across Munster. It’s happening at a national level, too, and allied to Nucifora’s vision, a World Cup on home soil, Sevens success and IRFU funding, bridging that gap to the ‘Big Three’ might happen sooner rather than later.

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