Sinead Kissane: 'Comprehensive plan to build women's game may leave gap at the top'
Four days after the launch of the 20x20 women's sport initiative by the Federation of Irish Sport, the IRFU held a media briefing to announce its strategic plan for the men's and women's game for 2018-2023.
This strategic launch was like no other by the IRFU. The formal media and slideshow briefing lasted 45 minutes, of which 35 minutes were primarily focused on the development of women's rugby with the release of the Women in Rugby Action Plan 2018-'23.
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The mission is to "build a strong base to grow the women's game".
Here are some numbers: the IRFU hope to increase the female adult playing base from 1,341 to 5,000 active players and increase female youth players from 2,500 to 6,500 by 2023.
This new plan had to be big on pathways and structures which underlined just how underdeveloped - to put it lightly - the girls and women's game in this country has been.
It goes beyond playing numbers. It is two years since IRFU chief executive Philip Browne hit back at a failed Government attempt to impose gender quotas on sports organisations because "female rugby is still in its infancy".
"It will be difficult to find suitably qualified female candidates with the accumulated rugby wisdom and skills set to fill such quotas without retreating to tokenism," Browne told a Dáil committee in January 2017.
To say there's been a public shift in emphasis on female leaders within the IRFU would be an understatement.
Their new Women in Rugby Action Plan states it will support leaders by "increasing gender diversity with a target of 20 per cent of board and committee positions in clubs, branches, and the IRFU to be held by women" and by "reviewing the laws, regulations and policies of the IRFU to ensure inclusion and integration of women within the union's governance and management process".
Strategic plans lend themselves to talking a good game, of course.
The results of reviews into the women's game and Ireland's performance at the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup were not laid bare here, for example.
There was a hint of insight in the female coach support section where "65pc believe no clear female coach pathway" existed and "83pc felt a greater challenge than male counterparts".
The union hope that those numbers will be reduced to less than 20pc by 2023 as they aim to increase the number of female coaches from 179 to more than 450.
The bottom line is that this plan hopes to increase "female participation to 20pc, or more, across the game including players, coaches, referees, volunteers and committees".
This is ambitious. This will be brilliant progress, if delivered on. Which was why the aims for the Women's Six Nations and Women's Rugby World Cup jarred against the ambition of everything else in this plan.
The stated objective for Ireland in the Women's Six Nations over the next five years is "consistent top-three finish and win one championship during the term of the plan" and for the Women's Rugby World Cup it is for "WRWC21 qualification and top-six finish".
Under the 2013-'18 strategic plan, Ireland won a women's Six Nations title in 2015 and were semi-finalists at the Women's RWC in 2014 and eighth in the 2017 WRWC.
Instead of the stated baseline ambition for our national women's 15s team being raised again for the next five years, it has uninspiringly levelled off.
A month before that IRFU briefing last October, the RFU across the water confirmed that it would be offering 28 full-time contracts to female players which came into effect at the start of 2019.
"The performance of England women, the Red Roses, has been a catalyst for growth, inspiring other women and girls to take up the game," ran the blurb on the England rugby website when it announced its own action plan for women and girls back in November 2017.
At the Six Nations launch in London on Wednesday, I spoke with England captain Sarah Hunter who is now a full-time professional player.
"It's brilliant," Hunter said.
"I think it will take a bit of time for professionalism to kick in and really see the benefit of it because it's only been two weeks.
"I think we're still getting used to what it looks like and how it will hopefully transform our game."
So with England going pro and Ireland's elite 15s players remaining amateur, with no indictation of that changing, is there a fear the gap will open?
"Well, there's always that fear, absolutely," Ireland women's head coach Adam Griggs reflected on Wednesday.
"I wouldn't imagine at this point that gap is going to grow quickly but, in a year or two, and watching those sides get to that level, there is a fear of it.
"But all we can control is what we do in our camp. I think what the (Ireland) ladies are doing is as good as anything at the moment."
"The IRFU have brought in per diems now so we're getting per diems for our match weekends which is a massive bonus in terms of work-life balance," Ireland captain Ciara Griffin added.
"I suppose they (England) are professional but we're professional in our weekends, in the way we engage in training during the week ourselves. The only encouragement you need is the jersey on your back and the crest on your chest."
Ireland play England in the opening game of the women's Six Nations in Energia Park, Donnybrook, next Friday night.
If the IRFU's primary mission is to build from the bottom up until 2023, there will be a knock-on effect on the top - especially with England's players going pro.
The women's Six Nations remains the biggest window for female rugby here. It is players like Griffin who are the catalyst for girls to imagine what success could look like.
If she can't see it, she can't be it.
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