Hours put into girls' game now paying off
Years of dedication are reaping their rewards as women's rugby starts to flourish in west Mayo, writes Daragh Small
Since the turn of the century Westport RFC have become a powerhouse of underage rugby in Connacht and, thanks to the diligence of Dermot Ruddy, the girls have caught up with the boys.
Westport native Grace Browne Moran has played for the Ireland U-18 Sevens team but she isn't the only talented ball player that has been produced on the banks of the Carrowbeg river.
It may have taken a few years, but the patience and determination to build a solid platform for the girls' game in the region is now paying off. From minis to youths and now on the cusp of a senior team, Westport RFC is setting the standard for the growth of women's rugby.
"We have a great set-up and we are very lucky that we have had 100 per cent buy-in from the club. The girls in Westport are definitely not second-class citizens," says Ruddy.
Westport native Ruddy is a wine sales rep who began playing with the club when he was just 15. He started as a prop, switched to wing-forward and then finally ended up at centre.
Unfortunately, he injured his back in a car accident and had to give up playing the sport when he was 31, but soon learned that he was better as a coach than a player.
Ruddy has mentored through the ranks at Westport. He became president at the club eight years ago and when he stepped out of the hot-seat he was determined to keep on influencing the next generation.
Seriously "There were five or six girls being trained by a teacher in the school who had no coaching experience. I was chatting to him and asked him his aim. At the same time a girl came up wondering were they taking the training session seriously," says Ruddy.
"I told her that if she wanted to take it seriously, she needed to get five or six more girls and I would come down to train them that year, and the year after. It sprung from that, we got a thing going the following year.
"We had ten girls on the Connacht youth squad. We had a few tough years but we are in the final every year - it took us five years to win a final. Since then we are basically unbeaten at U-18.
"We have always had been good at U-15 but they had always been beaten in the final. We went seven years without winning a final until last year when they won it.
"They went on to the schools Sevens and won Connacht, and then the All-Ireland Sevens in Terenure College last year."
The Women's Rugby World Cup came to Ireland earlier this year and it is hoped that there will be a massive knock-on effect in the club game throughout the country on the back of hosting such a prestigious competition.
But the work had already begun at Westport and Ruddy explains how important it is that the girls enjoy participating.
"This year we have a huge amount at training, we have 38 girls training at U-18. We are going to have to put in two teams into the Connacht U-18 league and cup because otherwise we just won't be able to look after them," he adds.
"It's just important that the girls enjoy themselves. That's the most important thing and we are there to create the environment for them to enjoy themselves. Once they enjoy themselves, they upskill and they play.
"We have had tremendous success down through the years with representation at Connacht level with the girls and this year we got one girl, Grace Browne Moran, she played on the Irish girls U-18 Sevens team.
"She played in Wales where they won all of their three games, but unfortunately she broke her wrist and couldn't go on to play in France recently."
The Westport girls section have introduced minis, U-13, U-15 and U-18 in recent years but at senior level they were unable to field a team, until 2018 when Ruddy says that will take off too. The graduates of the club's early years have now moved on from their studies and are returning to Westport.
"Next year we are going to start up a senior women's team because it's different to boys. We haven't started one yet because 100 per cent of the girls go off to college when they finish school and we don't have the facility to account for that yet," says Ruddy.
"The girls are going off Galway, Limerick, Cork or Dublin and very few of them stay around. Next year we have got girls from the group that have graduated and migrated back to Westport. We have a lot coming through next year and we are going to start up a senior team. We had to get the right structure. We found early on that if the structure is right the girls will come down. We have the right people in place and the finances are in place now. It comes easy because the girls come down and they enjoy it."
The Sacred Heart School on the Castlebar Road continues to build an empire for women's rugby at the club.
The Westport RFC infrastructure has been expanded massively in recent years in order to meet the demand and that will only improve in time too.
It all points towards a rugby dynasty and people like Donna Gavin and Bernie Nolan, coaches of the U-13s, Liz Brady, manager of the U-15s, Joe O'Grady, the U-18 coach, and Ruddy have made this all possible.
"We train every Tuesday and Thursday night in Westport between 6.30pm and 8pm. This year we have had a big influx from a lot of GAA clubs around us," adds Ruddy.
"This year we had four girls from Burrishoole and we have got four girls from Achill too. Last year at the start of the year we only had nine girls at U-15 at the start of the season. We asked them to go out and get their friends to join and they did and we ended up with a panel of 24 U-15s.
"And it's just going to get better. We were lucky that we have had four presidents in a row, I started it myself and then my vice-president came in for two years.
"The coach of our U-18, Joe O'Grady, is going to be president of the club next year for two years. There is a continuity all the way through where the girls are on the agenda all the time."