RBS Women’s 6 Nations: Italy v Ireland
The obvious opening comparison for this piece is the calamitous season being endured by the men’s rugby team, but that would be unfair.
The sensational 2013 that the Irish women’s rugby team are enjoying deserves to stand on its own.
The Philip-Doyle coached side face Italy tomorrow in Parabiago, Milan, in the game that can earn them their first Grand Slam. They’ve emerged slowly into the limelight as the slow spring weeks have rolled by, and when you ask Alison Miller if it’s a dream come true, she nods.
“Ah it is. We didn’t plan it. It wasn’t our goal. That was World Cup qualification and when we achieved that we were really happy.
“We’d never beaten England before, so that was a first. Winning a Triple Crown was another first. And having the results go our way in the other games and winning the Six Nations, that made it a season of firsts. We hadn’t planned it but at the same time we knew if we played good rugby we could be capable of it. We knew we’d have to do things right all the way.”
The victory over the old enemy was “was definitely the highlight so far,” she says. “I’d played against them twice before that and we hadn’t won, and people who wouldn’t be aware of women’s rugby normally started taking notice, really, when that result came in.
“For me it was the fact that we beat them so convincingly... it set us up for the rest of the games, without a doubt. You’d notice afterwards the texts were flooding through — from the people who’d always text you, which is great — and from people who mightn’t even have been aware I was playing rugby: people I played other sports with years ago, for instance, or women in their seventies that you wouldn’t know had any interest at all in the sport.”
Miller touched down for three tries against England. She acknowledges one of those as a season highlight, but the admission comes with a twist.
“It was an awful try technically — I could have been stopped — but a good one athletically. And the coaches pointed that out afterwards.
“We go through that after the game, all the analysis — we’re hard on ourselves, they’re hard on us. There’s no being soft on ourselves, because if we are, how will we improve?”
We promised not to, but we can’t help ourselves. The fact that the men’s side seems to be staggering from catastrophe to catastrophe; put baldly, is that a help to the women’s cause in terms of exposure?
“It has to be, in a way,” says Miller, a history and PE student in UCC. “If they were going well and in line for winning the Six Nations then the focus would probably be more on them.
“I suppose women have to excel generally to get that media attention. Derval O’Rourke, Katie Taylor, Sonia O’Sullivan, they were all at the very top of their game when they got all the attention and for women in sport that’s just the way it is. It might change in years to come but that’s just the way it is now.”
So the Katie Taylor gold medal wasn’t a tide that lifted all boats? “You have to win something or do something worth noticing to get in the papers,” she says. “We don’t expect coverage for just turning up to play a game, but people who see our games realise what a good standard it is.”
The high standards don’t come easy. The players work hard on their own and in groups.
“For internationals there are weekend camps. We’d have been training with our provinces from late July early August, moving onto the inter-provincial series in December. After that we go to Irish camp at the weekends but you’d have individualised weight programmes and so on.”
Miller concedes that people who aren’t used to the female version of the game are sometimes surprised that it’s exactly the same in terms of rules as the men’s.
“It’s exactly the same, it’s full on,” she says. “When I started playing rugby, before making the Irish team, one question a lot of people asked was whether we were playing tag rugby, rather than full contact. My boyfriend plays rugby and when he first came to see us he couldn’t get over the standard. My answer always is ‘what did you expect, what did you think we were doing all this time’.”
Miller was an athletic kid with broad sporting tastes and she took the scenic route to rugby, which wouldn’t be unusual among her teammates.
“Was I always into rugby? No. Like a lot of girls growing up I was very sporty — I did gymnastics, athletics, ballet, basketball. That was the main team sport I played from an early age actually, basketball.
“In secondary school I took up hockey and volleyball as well, so basically the more sports I could play the better; when I went to college first in Waterford IT I went back to the athletics but I also took up rugby in fourth year there. Around the same time I took up ladies’ football.” (That move was hardly surprising – Miller’s father, the late Bobby Miller, was the manager of Éire Óg of Carlow in that club’s glory days.)
“Even though I’m from a Gaelic football background and would have had a ball in my hand all the time growing up, I’d never really played with a team,” she says.
“When I finished college I played football for the Laois team — I wasn’t playing any rugby at all that time — but in 2009 I fell in with my local rugby club, Portlaoise, and just got into it that much more.
“Now Portlaoise has a women’s team and teams for girls at U18, U15 and U12. Carlow would have women’s and girls’ teams; Tullow, where Sean O’Brien is from, would have a women’s team. That’s changed, in the sense that there are that many more options now.”
And already Miller has team-mates who have come through availing of those options.
“Ashleigh Baxter is the youngest on the Ireland team, she’s 20, and she’d have played rugby from a very early age. The same for another girl on the team, Nikki Caughey. They’re both from Belfast and they’ve come up through underage girls’ rugby, which is great to see. That’s what we’re trying to bring in for girls as well, that they can come up through the syste because obviously it’s a way for them to become more skilful, more game-aware.”
It also helps that the bad old days for the internationals — the sleeping on floors, getting cheap flights in the middle of the night — are gone as well.
“I missed all that,” says Miller. “By the time I got involved it had become far more professional. The environment’s always been very good while I’ve been there, we’ve been looked after very well.
“It’s a game you can take up later on, too, people in their twenties can fall in and join, but obviously getting girls to start playing at a young age can only be good for developing their skills.
“And the national team doing well can help that, obviously. You see it in all sports, when the national team or the top team is doing well more people are interested and more people start playing the sport, but I noticed even before we started doing well that there was more and more interest and more women and girls participating.”
When asked who has helped her along the way, Miller namechecks the people you’d expect; what you mightn’t expect is that she hopes the rugby team will keep girls interested in sport.
“There’s so many to thank, so many to name — coaches, players, my two classmates from college, Shane O’Rourke and Andy McBride, who encouraged me to take up rugby, Gary Byrne in UCC has been a huge help to me.
“My mother and father drove me to all sports, which gave me the mindset to stay involved in sports; I think a lot of girls fall away from sport because they think it’s not the thing to do, it’s not feminine or whatever.
“It’d be nice to see girls staying interested in sport and it’d be nice if they did so because of our success.”
Ireland on Grand Slam brink: How they got here
February 3, Port Talbot: Wales 10 Ireland 12
February 9, Ashbourne: Ireland 25 England 0
February 23, Lasswade: Scotland 3 Ireland 30
March 8, Ashbourne: Ireland 15 France 10
Ireland team to play Italy
N Briggs (UL Bohemian/Munster); N Kavanagh (UL Bohemians/Munster), L Cantwell (Richmond/Exile), G Davitt (Cooke/Ulster), A Miller (Portlaoise/Connacht); N Stapleton (Old Belvedere/Leinster), L Muldoon (UWIC/Exile); F Coghlan (UL Bohemian/Leinster, capt), G Bourke (UL Bohemians/Munster), A Egan (Old Belvedere/Leinster), S Spence (Mowden Park Sharks/Exile), ML Reilly (Old Belvedere/Leinster), S Fleming (Tralee/Munster), C Molloy (Bristol/Exile), J Neville (UL Bohemian/Munster).
Replacements: S-L Kennedy (City of Derry/Ulster), F Hayes (UL Bohemian/Munster), L Day (Waterloo/Exile), H O’Brien (Highfield/Munster), L Guest (Highfield/Munster), A Davis (Blackrock College/Ulster), S Huston (Blackrock College/Leinster), A Baxter (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster).
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