Saturday 18 November 2017

Lifting a nation's hearts by giving all of theirs

Equality isn't the point when it comes to Ireland's triumphant women's rugby team. It's more about fairness and respect

Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan lifts the 6 Nations Trophy as her team-mates celebrate after beating Italy
Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan lifts the 6 Nations Trophy as her team-mates celebrate after beating Italy
David Kelly

David Kelly

"They've been doing fantastically well, dragging the international rugby name into a positive light. Thank God for them because there have been times when we haven't done that" -- Ireland full-back Rob Kearney

"Sometimes it takes a woman to do a man's job" -- Kathryn Thomas introducing the team at RTE's People Of The Year awards

THE taxi man, already driven to distraction by an impatient, tired passenger who presumes that Leaving Cert French may also be understood in a dreary outpost of Milan, opens the door to deposit his fare in a large puddle of acid rain.

"Si, si, si!" he says gleefully, eager to be free of the importuning impertinent sloth in his back seat.

But this is not the real Milan. This is Milan's wayward teenage son, kicked out of the house at aged 17 having refused to complete his Leaving Cert.

We had been told that the Irish women's team's unlikely Grand Slam tilt would take place here. Wherever 'here' was. The game was scheduled for a village called Parabiaggio.

As the eager-to-depart taxi man beckons wildly at the sprawling concrete behemoth that is shielding us from the snow, one doesn't need either a lesson in geography or Italian to divine that this is nowhere near a village.

We are outside what seems like a vague attempt to relocate Southfork Ranch from Dallas to northern Italy. This is the hotel. It seems like we are the only two people left on this windswept, chilling Earth.

Could it get any worse? Of course it could get worse. Much worse.

For this is not the hotel. It has the same name. But it is not the hotel.

SEETHING

And so, reluctantly, my new friend, still seething having decamped to Malpenza airport when his hapless fare was actually in Linata airport -- of course, neither of these were in Milan either -- re-engages to do battle with a series of chicanes that, were they deployed in Formula 1, may make that sport interesting once more.

Having been deposited in another icy puddle, we exchange awkward "ciaos" once more; as he leaves, a pang of regret grips my ignorant unilingual tongue. He feels like the only friend I have.

All this for a group of amateurs? Wait, a group of amateur women (Girls? Women? I wasn't yet down on the nomenclature).

Thanks a lot Declan Kidney! After all, had his group of men -- wait, group of professionals -- not made such a dog's dinner of the Six Nations, this late detour to Milan would never have happened.

There would have been no TV cameras. No photographer. No reporters. RTE Sport have braved many mindless barbs to decamp here too (in a proper hotel, mind; in a proper village, too).

Aside from us, only a limited group of devoted witnesses are here to enjoy a remarkable final chapter of a tale that they always knew would be deserving of constant re-telling. For they have endured the whole story.

All of which was still far removed from this tired bag of bones which shuffled disconsolately into what I hoped was the correct hotel.

It resembled an addiction clinic so naturally I ordered a beer. "Only beer in other hotel," said the hirsute, haughty host wearing a gold-plated lapel emblazoned with the name Emilio.

"Emilio, let me explain something to you ... "

Myself and my lonely beer sat down in silence within, interrupted in fleeting moments by the sleeting elements without.

"Here goes nothing," I toasted myself. This same night, there is an unused seat reservation waiting for me at Toscana, in a city where at times anything seems possible.

Little did I know that what once seemed impossible would be unfurled within a suburban Sunday mudbath.

Little did I know I would fall in love with 23 remarkable women and a 'Goose'. Hell, when I returned to my hotel on Sunday night (ahem, Monday morning, hic), I would even give Emilio a kiss on the cheeks. After all, it was St Patrick's Day.

* * *

IT WAS when they beat England that folk sensed something special was happening in women's rugby.

Ireland had played their first international 20 years earlier; but theirs was a history of under-achievement and under-resourcing.

Their subjugation was regularly measured against the dominance of the English. Joy Neville, a talisman (Talisgirl? Taliswoman? Confound it!) of the back-row lived out her career in green with the English red rose a particular wounding thorn in her side.

"If I could only beat them once," she would recall. When they finally tore off the shackles, they did so with unbridled relish.

A 25-0 victory amidst the radiance of Alison Miller's hat-trick, created by driving forward power and sweet passing from the inestimable Niamh Briggs, the dashing Lynne Cantwell and the canny Nora Stapleton.

Miller is the day's hero; daughter of a Laois GAA legend in Bobby and a mother, Carol, whose gymnastic and athletic prowess ensured Ali would never want for sporting inspiration.

Famous Laois names like Lulu Carroll and Sue Ramsbottom were the torchbearers for their sex.

Enough men complain about lack of facilities and funding and support. Women have always had it much worse. Miller's is just one of a multiple of different tales within this squad.

In professional sport, character and personalities are distilled into a collective; the Irish men's team are a wonderful bunch too, but most have emerged from professional academies and, year on year, are being airbrushed of the individual traits with which a sports fan can readily identify.

These women are amateurs, but only to those on the outside watching in; they see themselves as professionals. Meeting three of them in December at what should be a royal booze-up, they each declare sobriety. "Physical tests on the 23rd and 27th," they sigh.

Amateurs? Take a second look. It has taken them some time to be treated like the professionals they feel they are.

It should be a distant memory, but it is only two seasons ago that they were herded on an overnight train to play a Six Nations game in Pau; chickens on the Indian freight network receive better treatment.

They will return there this year on a chartered flight. There was a time, though, when they paid everything from their own pocket, even the petrol money to training.

Ireland paid their own way to the 1998 World Cup in France. They lost to Kazakhstan. Twice. Theirs was a frivolous venture. Times change. In rugby, very slowly.

And so, a year after the extraordinary expense lavished for more than six months in preparing a men's side that flopped so spectacularly in the World Cup, the IRFU invited the ladies into the all-boys club in 2008.

Still, the entire annual budget wouldn't have come close to paying Johnny Sexton what he felt he deserved to stay with Leinster.

All the women needed was a little bit of recognition. They could do the rest. Just wait and see.

* * *

The endgame against England stuck in the memory. 'Goose' is the nickname of coach Phillip Doyle, whose wife had played in that first ever international when they lost to Scotland.

As the seconds are counting down in Ashbourne, he is the only man in the ground who seems not to want to hear the final whistle.

Up and down the sideline he is invoking an incantation of the inspired. "LET THEM KEEP THE BALL!" he bellows as England try to go through phases. England, who had just beaten Scotland 76-0, are on the Irish 10-metre line

"LET THEM HAVE IT!" England are on the Irish '22' now, retreating. Goose's gander is stratospheric. "DON'T WANT IT! LEAVE THEM AT IT!" England, now crippled by their own inadequacy, eventually knock-on.

When their faces emerge from the dust, they can just about make out the half-way line. Ireland have pushed them back over 40 metres. Twenty-nine phases.

This would be their mantra. No holding back. No regrets. No excuses.

Neville, at 31 one of the experienced heads in this team, had also suffered more than most at the hands of regular England shellackings. There was a 79-0. A 51-0. A 46-3. It was never pretty.

"I just wanted to beat them once," she said months later. In a weird way, beating England seemed to mean as much as winning the Grand Slam itself; England were the closest yardstick, after all.

A year earlier, England prop Rochelle Clark had helped her country win their seventh successive Six Nations and their sixth Grand Slam in seven years. Neville wanted to feel the grip of the metal disc in her fingers.

"How many of them do you have?" Neville asked her. "Oh, about four, I think," answered the girl known to all as 'Rocky.' Neville was struck by the fact she had to think.

"I just want one," she lamented to her rival. "Keep believing, girl."

She would. No fear of that. It's all she's ever known.

* * *

WHEN they won the Triple Crown in Lasswade against Scotland, it wasn't enough. They wanted more. They wanted it all. They approached the final weekend in Italy as if the meaning of all their lives would be distilled into 80 minutes of a ball game.

Their world was a different world. On Saturday, the Olympic Stadium in Rome and all its glory. A day later, even the locals can't tell me where their national women's team are playing. The singing in the rain acts as an auditory GPS; a vast swathe of Irish voices have travelled to witness history. From New Zealand, the United States, Australia. Even Offaly!

The match is atrocious, a pathetic fallacy to complement the freezing, driving rain that has rendered the surface a ploughing field. Grace Davitt concedes an early penalty and Italy lead 3-0.

What if Ireland lose? There will be no story. Just quiet, teary-filled regrets from players and remorse from media outlets that a good news slot must be filled instead by just another Premier League myth.

The metronomic Briggs levels it; Marie Louise O'Reilly soars to steal in the line-out, Miller crashes into a try-saving tackle, Sophie Spence, English by birth but Irish by blood, barrels forward.

Then Lynne Cantwell drops her hips in Drico-like poetic motion and creates a scoring chance. But the score remains 3-3. The weather remains biblical. The supporters remain singing. Ireland are stuttering towards the line. Briggs makes it 6-3.

Italy pummel proudly on their home mud. Briggs' boot repels. One final attack, a green body poaches. It's Neville. Is it legal? "Of course it wasn't bloody legal," she laughs months later. "I was so relieved the referee's hand didn't go up."

Ireland clear. The seconds tick away to history.

The outpouring of celebration mimics that which has rained down from the skies all afternoon.

As we congregate in the freezing dusk outside to collect players' thoughts, some of the heroes are forced to brave the elements when moving between the showers and the changing-rooms.

It is at once a reminder of the amateur status that tugs at their sleeves, the indignity to which they are constantly subjected, but also the odds they have striven to overcome. A couple suffer early effects of hypothermia.

"They are just a joy to work with," says Goose breathlessly. "Great characters. There's young, there's old. There's wise.

"They are just happy out all the time, they never stop going about with a smile on their face, even when they get down and dirty.

"They like hard work and know the standards that have got to be kept. Their diligence to the small percentages is exceptional."

We stop and think what life would be like were that commitment to be reciprocated by all they meet.

Later, we gatecrash the celebrations in the team hotel and, if it feels as we are invading an intimate gathering, well it's because we are.

RAUCOUS

This is their moment, but in all of this there is the remembrance of the thousands of moments -- many of them torturous and lonely, but all worthwhile -- that have led to this raucous night.

Through the beers and the tears, you try to tell them all this. You've fallen in love with these 23 women -- and the Goose -- but do they not know that you're going to leave tomorrow and, probably, not even stay for breakfast. There's a good chance you'll walk away forever.

The bandwagon will soon move on to another town. They know all this because they're clever. Many are students. Some -- like Leigh Dargan, a Londoner -- are mothers.

They don't want to be loved in the morning. They just want to be respected. And so, as they head into a World Cup year and a game at the Aviva, the expectations will rise and that is how they want it.

They don't need the public's fawning bulls**t. They want to be judged as winners and losers like everyone else.

Finding the balance between all the men who have uncomfortably ignored them for so long and the women who think that just appearing on TV or in print is a triumph for female athletes will be difficult.

So too criticising their defeats with as much passion as celebrating their victories. Then again, women's rugby should be celebrated for what it is, rather than something it is not.

Strenuous demands from a lot of ignorant sisters for equality -- oddly many of whom have no interest in sport -- completely miss the point.

Women's rugby is not as good as men's rugby. Few female sports are the equal of their male equivalents.

When people speak of the Irish rugby team, they refer to its men, not its women. The Irish women just want respect. If they stink the place out, they don't want to be patted on the head.

Captain Fiona Coghlan enjoyed being recognised in the supermarket last year, but that doesn't mean she wants to live the life of Brian O'Driscoll; when RTE spoke to her at the People Of The Year awards, they mis-spelled her name. Wouldn't happen to Brian.

Equality? Anyone who has followed the path of the women's game in this country knows that isn't the point. Fairness might be closer to the mark.

And so when they play at Lansdowne Road next month, it is more than likely that thousands more will leave the stadium than hang around as the women warm up to play Italy.

You won't have to apologise. You could, of course, stick around. Just don't give them lipstick service. These girls are good. We thank them for lifting a nation's hearts by giving all of theirs.

Irish Independent

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