Belfast calls as school’s out for World Cup

Today, the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup folds its tents and moves up the M1 from the UCD campus on Dublin’s southside to Belfast.

For the 336 players from the dozen nations, their coaches and various other support staff, there will likely be a collective air of relief at the prospect of new surroundings.

Nothing against UCD, mind, but the guts of two weeks spent living in a university dorm with little or nothing to distract you from the everyday duties of training, eating and sleeping must get to a guy or gal at times.

Also, there’s no doubt that this hybrid existence of monk/student/athlete has taken its toll on some.

We can’t say for sure that this goes for everyone, but at least one team has been
bivouacked in accommodation without so much as a single TV between them. So, the primary diversion of choice has been trusty old tablets and laptops — the wireless in UCD is excellent, thankfully — without which your modern sportsperson would go stir crazy.

There have been grumbles about the food, too. Not for these players the monster buffets used to feed the insatiable appetites of their male counterparts. Instead, it’s been boiled eggs for breakfast and a choice of one meat or another.

Being based in UCD means, too, that it’s a long trek to your nearest KFC or Donnybrook Fair.

None of this has been new to any of the players who featured in the last World Cup, in 2014. The pool stages back then were held at the French rugby federation’s centre of excellence in the village of Marcoussis which is a 25km spin south of Paris on a bewildering network of trains.

The main leisure activity then was a long walk to the nearest cafe.

Plus ça change and all that…

As with then, the threat of ennui is only exacerbated by a schedule of matches which has seen all three pools in action on the one day, leaving a lengthy three-day gap mbetween rounds.

The Black Ferns did counter the boredom with a trip to Johnnie Fox’s in the Dublin Mountains one evening. It must have felt like a jailbreak in the circumstances.

The pool stages may have sold out, but the capacity in both UCD venues is tiny and the pervasiveness of empty seats was made all the more annoying on the opening day last week when an elderly English couple couldn’t be accommodated in the half-empty main stand at the UCD Bowl to watch their side face Spain.

They wandered over to Billings Park to take in New Zealand-Wales instead.

While we’re perfectly aware that there is nothing worse than a journalist moaning about stuff, the lack of signage and communication and the haphazard means of doing
interviews isn’t suggestive of a smoothly-oiled machine.

These are all very much first-world problems, but it is impossible not to be struck by the small scale of the whole operation and any talk about the current tournament serving as a statement for Ireland’s potential ability to host the men’s version come 2023 is miles off the mark.

Suggesting this event is a dry run for 2023 is tantamount to suggesting that a domestic flight from Dublin to Cork is the sort of preparation required for a trip to outer space, though it has to be said that this isn’t the only tournament to experience some turbulence, most of which goes unnoticed by the majority.

Bigger issues do stand out.

Asking teams to front up for games every four days has been criticised more than once, with USA coach Pete Steinberg the latest to add his voice.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph yesterday he also bemoaned the failure to cater for a 16-team event with quarter-finals and the smaller squad sizes and support staff, which are both funded by the global governing body.

Steinberg labelled that last one as a “slap in the face” for the women’s game and, while World Rugby counter-attacked with a statement referring to greater funding and the like, heavy defeats suffered by Canada and the USA, supposed top sides, showed just how far the women’s game still has to go and how much more support it needs to kick on.

Imperfect it may be, but the show goes on, with the ‘Big Four’ making for the rather more salubrious surrounds of Kingspan Stadium and the rest scrapping over the minor placings out at Queen’s University.

The good news is that the teams are being housed in various hotels around a city with plenty of distractions besides a creamy latte and access to Netflix.

School’s out.

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