IRFU: We have the finance to attract a quality women’s coach, the difficulty is fighting with the Sevens programme

IRFU Head of Women's Performance and Pathways Gillian McDarby during the IRFU Women In Rugby press briefing. Photo: Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The IRFU says the job of the Ireland Women’s head coach is a challenging one, but insists it has the finance in place to attract a top candidate to the role.

The union said that outgoing coach Greg McWilliams’ departure was a mutual decision after the team finished bottom of the Six Nations and said the search for a successor is already under way.

Director of Women’s Pathways and Performance Gillian McDarby said that she believes the Ireland team can compete with England and France for titles within three to five years, but admitted that the union’s commitment to sevens presents a major challenge due to the number of players available.

Former Fiji men’s coach John McKee is in interim charge of the senior international team, but a search for a permanent appointment is ongoing.

“We want to get the best candidate that’s out there. That’s the straight answer,” McDarby said.

“It’ll be a challenging role, given everything that’s gone on. If somebody wants a challenge, absolutely. It’ll be a high-profile role given that the game is growing and growing. We want somebody who can make a mark and make a difference.”

The union yesterday confirmed that it is hiring eight coaches, including former internationals Niamh Briggs and Larissa Muldoon, to work with players aged between 18 and 23 at five new centres of excellence based out of universities in Carlow, Dublin, Galway, Belfast and Limerick.

The IRFU insists it wants to convince players not to move to the English Premiership, but there remains concerns about the standard of the domestic tournaments and the Celtic Challenge Cup which will feature two Irish teams next season.

McDarby believes that Ireland can compete in the next five years, but conceded that fighting on two fronts with the sevens programme is difficult.

“You’re probably looking at three, four, five years,” she said when asked about returning to the top table of the Six Nations.

“It’s quite challenging because we have a small depth of players. I suppose this year in particular was difficult because of the strategic objectives of both.

“This weekend, the (sevens) girls have a huge chance of qualifying for the Olympics and that would be an unbelievable achievement. It would attract players into the system.

“If girls can see that and if they can pull on a jersey and represent Ireland at the Olympics, we’re just going to have girls then actually aspire to be part of that.

“Going into that university system within the new pathways, that again is going to elevate the game because again, they’re going to see the competition.

“We’re actually going to set up competition structures within the universities, where we attract players into the system as well.

“So, bit by bit we’re putting layers on; incrementally building this and we’re developing our pathways and aligning everything to make sure that we actually do get better.”

Earlier, IRFU chief executive Kevin Potts insisted that the union has not influenced the national team’s selection policy when it comes to hooker Cliodhna Moloney who has been out of the picture since November 2021.

Moloney criticised former Director of Womens and Sevens Rugby Anthony Eddy’s comments in the wake of Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup and, while she featured in the November internationals that year, was never picked by McWilliams who cited ‘form’.

“I don’t get involved in selection,” he said.

“That’s a matter for high performance and the coaches, but it’s certainly not a case that Cliodhna Moloney is being silenced by the IRFU for speaking out. That’s the not the case, certainly.”

McDarby, meanwhile, believes that the Welsh and Scottish unions will buy into the Celtic Challenge Cup in future years.

The Irish Combined Provinces won the inaugural tournament this year, but then lost to Scotland and Wales who largely picked players based in England and treated the new tournament as a development competition.

“Every week we’re meeting and World Rugby have put in a considerable amount of investment within this, so it’s going to work,” she said.

“It just needs time. Nothing happens overnight. If we look at the men’s system, the provincial structure didn’t happen overnight. With the clubs and the AIL and the provinces it took 20 years of battling for that to actually come into proper fruition. So all I’m asking here is just start to give us time and believe in what we’re trying to do.

“We’re trying to make a difference. We have learned from what’s gone on in the past. What we now need is for your support to drive this forward.”