Well holy God. The IRFU has suddenly come to its senses and decided that women’s rugby in this country needs a bit of love and money.
Well, money anyway. The relationship has been so loveless for so long that not even a combination of Dr Ruth, Frankie Byrne and Angela MacNamara could spark a bit of romance at this stage into that particular tango.
Still, better to be married and miserable and have a few pound in your pocket, than to be married and miserable and penniless too. Apart from all its other sins of coldness and neglect, the IRFU was also like the husband who controlled the purse strings and wouldn’t give his suffering missus enough money to buy herself a decent cardigan.
Last Thursday, however, they announced out of the blue that they were going to give the top 43 female players centralised contracts worth “up to” €30,000, “plus match fees and bonuses”. The contracts have been “benchmarked internationally”, they said in a statement.
It was so out of character that you wondered if they’d gone mad on the the brandy down at headquarters on Lansdowne Road. Here was the fella who is notoriously slow to the bar suddenly splashing the cash on the second sex, that species which had been a second class citizen in the organisation for so long. It was as though they’d gone from reading Ned Van Esbeck to Nell McCafferty in one fell swoop.
Mind you, the amount of coin in question is still pennies compared to the men’s side of the game. But given the IRFU’s longstanding cultural parsimony vis à vis women’s rugby, this U-turn made St Paul’s Damascene moment look like a trivial change of heart, a fella merely deciding to have custard on his apple tart instead of ice cream.
What could possibly have triggered this volte face? Maybe one too many visits down to the family law courts. The IRFU have been hauled up so often in front of the beak on charges of spousal neglect that they’d found themselves in the last-chance saloon. The last time was the worst. On this occasion the women went public. Fifty-six players last December wrote a public letter that was so damning it could have had a one-word title: ‘J’Accuse’. They addressed it to the minister for sport and the junior minister for sport. It went off like a bombshell across the media.
In the first paragraph they described themselves as “a deeply discouraged group of current and former Irish women’s rugby players” who had “sadly lost all trust and confidence in the IRFU and its leadership after historic failings.”
In the third paragraph they swapped their modern rugby boots for the old-style hobnail jobs that could be used for ploughing fields. And they proceeded to give the venerable old institution the mother and father of a 1970s shoeing. “We write in the wake of a series of recent disappointments for the international team, on and off the field, but ultimately recent events simply reflect multiple cycles of substandard commitment from the union, inequitable and untrustworthy leadership, a lack of transparency in the governance and operation of the women’s game both domestically and at international level, and an overall total lack of ambition about what it could achieve.”
The referee had to call time off after that missive landed in Lansdowne: the entire staff in headquarters needed a HIA, followed by a swift gin and tonic. The “recent disappointments” referred to the catastrophic defeats of the national team by Spain and Scotland the previous September in the qualifying tournament for the World Cup. Ireland failed to qualify for that tournament, which will begin in New Zealand in October.
The “recent events” referred to the incident, also in September 2021, whereby the Connacht and Ulster women’s rugby teams had been forced to tog out on waste ground, beside wheelie bins, for their interprovincial match at Energia Park, Donnybrook, and allegedly with a few rats running about the place too.
Footage was posted on social media, the IRFU had another forest fire on its hands. Then in November, Anthony Eddy made remarks to the press about the World Cup qualifying debacle which, if nothing else, were ill-timed and insensitive. Eddy was then director of women’s rugby at the IRFU. Former international Jenny Murphy described his remarks as “spineless”. Current player Cliodhna Moloney went with an agricultural metaphor: was this “slurry spreading season”, she wondered. Last March, Anthony Eddy resigned from his post.
Ireland hosted the 2017 women’s World Cup. That was a debacle too. When the IRFU subsequently advertised for a new national team head coach, the wording said the position would be “a six-month contract, on a part-time basis”. Incredibly, less than two months after the embarrassment of the host nation crashing early out of the World Cup, the IRFU felt that a “part-time/casual” head coach was good enough. The penny hadn’t dropped at all. It was there in black and white. It was another public relations fiasco. A protest campaign went viral. Headquarters in Lansdowne was under siege again.
Fast forward four years, to last December’s open letter, and they were still being accused of utter negligence. The institutional failure on this issue has been so comprehensive for so long that it amounts to a pathology in the culture. For some reason or other, perhaps to do with social conditioning or the peculiar circumstances of all-male private schools or its tradition of privileged masculinity, Ireland’s rugby establishment has been incapable of simply accepting that women might like to play their game. We are not talking about current players or coaches, but the legacy of a deeply-embedded misogyny that has survived into the 21st century.
And even if the blazered masonry cannot understand why women would want to play their game, surely it should have dawned on them long before now that this is a vast market waiting to be tapped. On purely numbers alone, in terms of revenues and growing the sport, you’d have thought it would be obvious, an open goal, a major opportunity for expansion. Instead it has been one own goal after another.
They scored another one in their response to the letter last December. The IRFU, it said in a statement, “refutes the overall tenor of the (letter) ... It is disappointing that this group should choose now to come out with a series of allegations ...” etc etc.
But now the ministry of sport was in play, and Sport Ireland and its financial leverage, while the IRFU’s blue-chip list of corporate sponsors was getting nervous about all the blowback too.
Jack Chambers, Minister of State for Sport, publicly scolded the IRFU at an Oireachtas hearing. He quickly sought meetings with the players’ representatives, and then with the IRFU. The players, he said afterwards, were looking for better engagement and dialogue with the IRFU, and for oversight and implementation of issues in women’s rugby. Sport Ireland would be engaging both parties in this process.
Some seven months later came the announcement about the 43 centralised contracts. It looks like they were dragged kicking and screaming to this point in their evolution. And sadly this new venture is the tip of a very modest pyramid. The chosen 43 should be the cream at the top of a broad base underneath. They should be the select elite from a nationwide playing pool of talent. But the numbers of women playing adult rugby remain paltry. Therefore the standard at the top is light years removed from that of England and France and other nations.
It is an abiding irony that while the men’s game in Ireland has closed the gap to rugby’s superpowers, the women’s gap here has become a chasm. The former is one of the IRFU’s outstanding achievements; the latter is an ongoing shame.
Still, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Maybe this new project will become the engine that drives a whole new generation into the arms of the game. Women’s sport is here to stay. It is a revolution, a transformation in the culture. And it’s not today or yesterday it started. The IRFU has no excuse now. If they are finally on board, it is time to start sailing.