IT’S a sporting anomaly, but both of the first-choice half-backs for the Irish women’s rugby team are from Donegal.
To paraphrase that famous Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh line, Donegal is not known as a rugby domain.
Out-half, Nora Stapleton, now with 45 caps to her name, started out in Gaelic football and won an All-Ireland intermediate football medal seven years ago, against a Waterford side that included Niamh Briggs.
She had never even played one game of rugby within her own county when she began starring for Ireland.
But things have altered since and she is right at the heart of that change, as the IRFU’s women’s and girls’ development manager.
But a childhood experience had already informed her commitment to the game.
“I’m from near Buncrana and there was no rugby in Donegal when I started,” says the Irish number 10, who initially played ‘tag rugby’, while she was working for the Dublin County Board as a GAA games development officer.
“My best friend, growing up, was a boy and, when we were 10, he went off to play rugby with City of Derry.
“Up until then, we’d played all different sports together: hurling, football, everything.
“I was there, like ‘ask if I can come next week?’ and he came came back and said ‘No! Girls aren’t allowed!’
“That’s something I don’t ever want to happen to any other young girl,” she says vehemently.
“If she wants to play, she should have the opportunity.”
Since then, green rugby shoots have emerged in Donegal.
“Larissa (Muldoon, Irish scrum-half) would have played a bit with Letterkenny, who are very strong at underage now and there’s two more women’s teams since, in Ballyshannon and Donegal Town. Our latest is Inishowen,” Stapleton says proudly of the women’s game reaching an area that is as remote as it is beautiful.
“There was already a men’s club there, but Alison McLaughlin started it, first in schools in Cardonagh, and now has 40-plus girls involved, which is fantastic.”
Hosting this World Cup has offered lots of opportunities for spreading the word and assessing the game’s growth, since the Irish women’s successes of 2013-2014.
The WRWC trophy has done a massive Irish tour, travelling 20,000km to 270 events in over 100 schools and 70-plus clubs.
“When we sent out applications, we asked clubs and schools ‘what will you do for us to bring you the trophy?’, so the tour’s had everything, from cakes and cup-cakes to art displays and even an Irish haka in one school,” she laughs. “In Westport, it even had a garda escort through the town.”
The number of registered, active senior women’s players in Ireland might only be around 2,000, but squads are noticeably bigger and more ‘second’ women’s teams are emerging in clubs.
The significant growth is at underage, especially since the IRFU introduced separate boys’ and girls’ mini-rugby (ages 7-12) training in 2013.
“Up to 40-plus clubs, across the country, have U10 and U10 girls, now, and, in Connacht, 50% of clubs have girls-only mini teams,” Stapleton says. “We’re finding more and more girls will play if they’re playing together. That’s primarily because the boys usually have played the game before them. If a 10- or 11-year-old girl sees Ireland and says ‘I want to do that!’, she can find herself being the only girl on a team of 20 boys, who have mostly been playing for a few years. It can be hard for her to adjust and learn, when everyone around her is already good. We find that if the club starts a girls-only team, they are all learning together.”
There is growth, also, at secondary schools.
“Leinster, now, has 40 schools offering rugby to girls and Munster has 25 already. We’ve teachers who might not know the game well, but are doing a huge amount to help.”
An All-Ireland (secondary) schools’ competition (initially in a sevens format) was set up three years ago and, this year, has been timed to take place during first term.
“We found that the interest goes up after tournaments, so we wanted to make sure that when girls go back to school, after seeing this World Cup, they’ll have rugby to play. This year’s finals will be in Donnybrook in November,” she says, adding that a new, third-level initiative will be unveiled in October.
Hosting the World Cup may be a fantastic recruitment tool, but doesn’t it also heap additional pressure on Ireland?
“You don’t want to remind yourself of it too much,” Stapleton says. “I live just two miles from UCD, so packing up the car to spend three weeks there is going to be weird. You’re not going to the airport together, there’s no big send-off; we just arrive. That will create a different dynamic that we have to manage.”
A recent, four-day camp at Fota Island Resort was part of that, but, unfortunately, also where Ireland lost Niamh Briggs to injury.
Yet, Stapleton remains optimistic. “We’ve a big job on our hands, but we’re ready for it. Since the Six Nations, we’ve really worked hard on set-pieces and working through the phases.
“We want to be able to play with width or crash up the middle, to be able to think on our toes and adjust to whatever style a game demands,” Stapleton says.
Their final group game, against France (August 17, whom they beat in the 2017 Six Nations) could likely decide their group.
“But that game will mean nothing if we don’t win our first two matches,” Stapleton says. “Our opener, against Australia (August 9) is huge, because they’re such an unknown quantity. We’ve played Japan (August 13 opponents) twice this summer, but we just can’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s only 12 teams in the tournament. That’s why every single game, in every group, is going to be so tough.”
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