Thursday 14 December 2017

Brendan Fanning: Gaelic football offers the template for change that women's rugby badly needs

Ladies Gaelic Football star Briege Corkery. Photo: Liam Murphy
Ladies Gaelic Football star Briege Corkery. Photo: Liam Murphy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

By close of play in Belfield this afternoon, Ireland should have made another down payment on a place in the semi-final of the Women's Rugby World Cup. Having taken 72 points on board against France, the Japanese girls are in no shape to upset the hosts. In which case Ireland will play France on Thursday night looking to seal the deal. So far so good.

As England will testify, having the World Cup on your patch and not making the knockout stages is like throwing a house party that you watch from across the street. And then you get to clean up after it.

If, like Japan in the men's version in two years, you are a Tier 2 nation then spectating at the business end would be disappointing, but hardly crushing. Ireland's girls are kind of the same, but different: clearly they are a mile off the pace of the big hitters, but for a couple of reasons they reckon they need to be still in the shop window when the parade starts down high street.

The first of these is that it will have a positive effect on Ireland's World Cup bid for 2023, the decision on which is coming up on November 15. It won't. Neither will it have a negative impact, which is just as well given that the first impression of the tournament for many will have been the lack of spectator interest in the opener, between holders England and Spain, followed by the haphazard treatment of teams' national anthems.

The second reason Ireland are desperate to make the last four is the 'L' word, which is part and parcel of any major sporting event: Legacy. In Japan a couple of months ago we were gobsmacked by the disconnect between how many players that country wanted to tie in to the game via the 2017 World Cup, and how they were going to deliver it.

In Ireland, according to the IRFU last week, the target post RWC is a bizarrely specific increase of 46.9 per cent on the existing 4,300 playing the game: ie 2,017. Seemingly it has nothing to do with the year that's in it. According to the union, 40 out of 260 clubs around the country have dedicated mini rugby sections, but in others girls can play with boys up to the under 12 age grade. The scale of the climb is best illustrated by their neighbours, who are already close to the summit.

The GAA has 170,000 members registered to ladies' football alone (these are not all players, but it paints a picture) and more than 1,200 clubs offering a gateway to the game. The target is that no matter where you are in the country you will have "convenient access" to a club. So if that's not in your own parish then it's in the next one.

The GAA have been at this since 1974, which explains the power of their position. It was 20 years later that the rugby girls, unloved by the IRFU, played their first Test. And that was off a base so small it would have fitted comfortably on the back of a postage stamp.

Interestingly, when it comes to the game itself, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association have cut their cloth to suit their measure. There are a few differences from the men's version. The most obvious is the pick-up, but the tackle too is less combative. And, significantly, the ball may be the same shape, but, like basketball, it's a smaller size.

All of these changes enhance the product because they make the game easier to play without messing with its fundamentals. And if you're in the business of selling, then product enhancement is a good thing. It's screaming off the page that rugby needs to go down the same road, for the reality is that women's rugby, even at the top end, is often hard to watch.

Unhelpfully, but inevitably, it is compared to the men's game. So too however is it juxtaposed in this country with the women's versions of the other big field sports: Gaelic football, camogie and soccer. This is a matter of opinion, but we'd suggest that if you think rugby rates as a spectacle with women's inter-county Gaelic games or soccer then you need to take a closer look.

And how could it? In the first place women's rugby is such a young sport that its grass hasn't taken root. So the majority of girls come to the game late. If you're in that group then already you're running to stand still. The skills of kicking and passing are learned best from childhood. This doesn't rule out latecomers, or athletes transferring from other sports, but if at the core of your team you don't have a bunch who can tick those boxes comfortably then you end up with what we often get at international level - outside the elite of England, New Zealand and Canada - a one-dimensional, error-ridden slog.

Ireland's win over Australia last week illustrated it perfectly. It was a compelling contest because there was never more than a score in it; both teams were utterly committed to the task; and in the second half especially the crowd made a real difference.

But if Ireland had the first cousin of a kicking game then they would have been able to play some territory, which would have cut down on the attrition. The Aussies were similarly handicapped, and their attempts off the tee were woeful. A smaller ball surely would help, as would perhaps limiting the zone for kicking of conversions to within the 15-metre lines.

As currently constituted though it's hard going. And consequently a hard sell. It's not up to the IRFU to make these changes, but if they are genuinely interested in development then they'll have to plough more bodies and cash into the whole operation here. From the ground up. And lobby World Rugby to change the game itself.

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