As another month without rugby passes by there is frustration for the women’s team at Ballincollig RFC, just as there is in every section of all the sporting clubs in Ireland.
Yet there is also optimism at Tanner Park that once the country can emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic that has long had us in its grip, there are green shoots for a very bright future at the highest level of the Irish women’s game.
The last 10 months have been particularly for tricky for Ballincollig. Their long-awaited entry into an expanded, 10-team Energia Women’s All-Ireland League and a first Cork presence since Highfield exited four seasons ago, was approved for 2020-21 by the IRFU last December but was then stymied by Covid-19.
Club director of rugby Denis Stevenson was speaking for all when he described the situation as being “stuck behind the 8-ball” in last Saturday’s feature on the lockdown limbo affecting all AIL clubs.
Like the rest of amateur rugby, with extended pre-seasons necessary to build up contact readiness, a late restart compared to other sports meant less than a handful of games were possible in the innovative Energia Community Series last autumn before the country went back into a higher level of restrictions but Stevenson paid tribute to the buy-in from Ballincollig’s club officers, coaches and players to making sure that when they do get to play top-level rugby, they will be able to not only hit the ground running but making a lasting impact on the Women’s AIL.
Stevenson, himself a former Munster Women’s U18 coach, has recruited Munster Club Community Rugby Officer and former Bantry head coach Damien Hicks as head coach and also brought on board former Munster and Ireland players Ger Rea and Helen Brosnan as part of the coaching set-up.
“We’ve everything put in place. Ger Rea has come on board as the women’s co-ordinator for us, helping us co-ordinate and speak to new recruits and that’s a big help to us.
“Damien Hicks has come in as our new head coach and Munster women’s backs coach Helen Brosnan as an assistant coach and Dennehy’s Health and Fitness are helping us with our strength and conditioning. So we have all the things in place for the season and we were looking forward to a tough battle.
“Having the two years (with no relegation) is a big thing for us. We’re putting a lot of funding into the women’s programme and at least we can build. We want to be successful but if we spend x amount of money at least we can do so without the worry.
Stevenson fears Ballincollig’s ambitious playing group will miss out on the chance to press for international recognition in a World Cup year but believes the building blocks now in place bode well for an extended period those initial two years.
“I have to say the club and the committee and president Jim Nyhan have all been very good to us and have been behind us in driving the women’s section on. We’ve plenty of support from the club and we’re confident of being a fixture in the AIL for many seasons to come.
“We now have girls under-age rugby. We have girls-only minis on a Friday evening up to Under-12. We’ve put a big effort into it this year. Harry Walsh is looking after the mini girls and I think we’re one of the first clubs to have girls only separate and they can play on Saturdays with the boys.
We’ve an U14s coached by Oran O’Keeffe, U16s with Dan Morrissey, and Paul Lordan takes the U18s so we’re getting there, it’s a big step forward for the club this year in the women’s game and it all stems towards building the senior women’s side.
“When we applied to go into the All Ireland League we said this is what we were going to do. We want to be the elite team in Cork and hopefully someday, in two or three years’ time it gets to be so big we might have to go playing in Musgrave Park again.
“It’s the first time in four years that the Women’s AIL is back in Cork, which is shocking really but it’s good. This is the first time we’ve been in Division One for 10 or 11 years, which is great. We’ve had a women’s section for 25 years so this is all a build-up of the work that’s been done by the club in that time.” Stevenson credits last year’s 20x20 campaign to promote women’s sport with helping the uptick in participation.
“We kept it going when it wasn’t fashionable but the 20x20 campaign has helped an awful lot. It’s helped to put the women’s game on the map and we’re set to go with sponsorships for the AIL because there’s more interest.
“They’re training by themselves online at the moment with the coaching staff, doing pilates and skills sessions and the like and there’s buy-in. It’s great to be a part of it and we as a club will support it to the nth degree and drive it on because it’s giving our club national exposure as well at the elite level when we’re a junior club in men’s rugby.
“So there’s pride in it and hopefully we can have some internationals come out of the club in future. We want to give girls from all over Cork an opportunity to play for Munster and then Ireland and we’re hopeful this summer that can we get some crossover athletes who see playing rugby as a means of representing their country and give it a try through our club.
“We have 46 women players currently registered with our AIL squad and hopefully we can get that up to 60 or 70 over the next two seasons and take it on from there.”