It’s not news to anyone that the IRFU dropped the ball on women’s 15s in the wake of the great glory days of 2013-2014 and has now started, belatedly, a process to try to regain it.
Only this week long-time Irish centre Lynne Cantwell, now chairing a high-powered committee on ‘women in sport’ for Sport Ireland, reiterated it.
“I think it’s clear that we haven’t got the right structures in place,” Cantwell said. “What we were hoping is that the (IRFU’s women’s rugby) action plan that came out last year was going to be strategic and map towards that success.”
Only time will tell, but one step forward is a newly expanded interprovincial ‘championship’ which kicks off today. Huge discrepancies in club standards still exist in the nascent women’s AIL and those in the game agree the interpros have the best and immediate potential to provide more meaningful competition. Giving every province five games shows initiative at last and the provinces themselves have shown leadership.
Female players finally getting sponsorship and free boots – as Leinster’s just have – shouldn’t be a big deal but it is, and their game against Connacht today (Donnybrook, 5.30pm) is also a first double-header with their men.
One facet of Munster looks particularly significant if more women are to get into the sort of positions (coaching and administration) that will inform better structures and strategy for them.
Munster’s home opener against Connacht today (3pm) features the very first all-female management at this level; Laura Guest (head coach), Helen Brosnan (assistant coach), Maeve D’Arcy (manager), Lorna Barry (S&C) and Kathryn Fahy (physio). Any notion that this is quota-driven is immediately flattened by the sort of hefty tackle that ex-Highfield and Ireland forward Guest demonstrated in her playing prime.
“I’m allergic to tokenism,” she bluntly says. “Yeah, the all-female management is an excellent side-story, but that’s not why we’re there. We’re just fortunate to have got a group together that has real quality, shares the same standard and works really well together.”
First appointed three years ago, Guest says their all-woman crew evolved very organically and Brosnan completed the circle this season when a vacancy occurred and ‘head office’ initially suggested her.
Guest is a maths teacher who started coaching the boys’ team in Midleton College (still does) and then became player/manager for Highfield WRC.
She has the IRFU’s second-highest coaching badge, is also a qualified coach tutor and says gender is no impediment in her province, giving credit to its development unit, especially Ultan O’Callaghan and Keith Murphy.
“Munster Rugby have had good foresight. They want people working in the women’s game who have a passion for it and aren’t afraid to look at the existing talents. They were the ones who came to me saying ‘it would be great to get more women involved’ and I said ‘yes, once the quality is there!’
Munster is also in its second year of a talent ID programme that gives extra attention to a small number who leave 18s but aren’t ready yet for senior rugby. “A lack of game-time can stunt a bit of development and this is an effort to bridge that gap,” Guest explains. “We’re trying to bring youth in but that’s not to say we want to throw out older players. There’s four or five in the squad older than I am.”
The only ‘gender difference’ she observes is how players respond to coaching.
“You line boys up and say ‘you need to go through that wall’ and they’ll go through it. They don’t care why. A female team will want to know why. ‘What’s behind the wall? Why don’t we go around it? Can’t we do it a different way?’ Females seem to have this need to know why they’re doing something. It’s not a bad thing, just very different.”