Thursday 14 December 2017

Tommy Conlon: Head honchos could try defining wimmin's role in sport over tea and buns

'Browne’s statement was loaded with rugby’s familiar self-importance' Photo: Sportsfile
'Browne’s statement was loaded with rugby’s familiar self-importance' Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

They have great women below in Ballynacargy. No two ways about it, great women below in Ballynacargy.

So, "are we taking a sledgehammer," wondered Robert Troy TD, "to try and crack an egg?"

But sure, as any lady who was ever tasked with making the half-time tea knows, you can't produce a batch of buns and a lock of sponge cakes without cracking a few eggs.

Deputy Troy was speaking on the vexed matter of gender quotas at the Oireachtas committee meeting on sport last Wednesday. Their guests were the head honchos from the big three of FAI, GAA and IRFU: Delaney, Duffy and Browne.

By way of preamble Troy pointed out that as a former treasurer of his GAA club in Westmeath, he knew where to go if you wanted to get something done. "Some of the best people on our committee were the wimmin," he declared with conviction. And lest anyone should doubt him, he emphasised the point. "Some of the best people on our committee, without fear or favour, were the wimmin."

Given that the competition for this accolade included the men of Ballynacargy, this was no small claim. "And there was no gender quota," he added.

In mid-December, Junior Minister at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport Patrick O'Donovan had floated the threat of funding cuts for any sports body that didn't have at least 30 per cent female representation on its national committees by 2019. His boss, Shane Ross, moved quickly to replace the stick with the carrot; progress would be made via consultation and advisory groups and other suitably vague initiatives.

The big three reiterated their opposition on Wednesday. John Delaney quite reasonably argued that women's soccer in Ireland has had a lot of success. Paraic Duffy pointed to the growing number of women officers on GAA county boards.

Philip Browne was easily the most militant of the three. It was entirely fitting. It had echoes of Irish rugby's historically weird attitude towards women. The IRFU has always been a sort of gentlemen's club, a judge's chambers, a Victorian smoking room, the Oxbridge dons' dining hall of long speeches and big feeds. It belonged to the same masonic culture as those men-only golf clubs.

Presumably there is some sort of explanation to be found in the sport's origins among all-boys private boarding schools. But somewhere at its core was a profound and usually unspoken fear of women. When it actually was articulated, it was generally in the form of rugby's famously misogynistic humour. A bunch of big blokes huddled together in dressing room or clubhouse bar, still unable to survive without each other in the world beyond those boarding school walls, and laughing a little too loudly for fear of being the odd one out. I have heard some of these deeply unfunny rugby jokes. They are very strange.

We had assumed that the rugby culture here had moved on and modernised, in common with the rest of society. And undoubtedly it has. The game has never been as popular in Ireland. The fierce meritocracy of the professional era has burned off much of the antique snobbery that was central to its amateur milieu.

And yet there were remnants of the old times to be picked up in Browne's statement to the Oireachtas committee. It sounded not deliberate but more a reflex, an involuntary twitch from a fading muscle memory. The IRFU's CEO was unnecessarily strident in his language.

A gender quota would be a concern, he said, "For the simple reason female rugby is still in its infancy and it will be difficult to find suitably qualified female candidates with the accumulated rugby wisdom and skillset to fill such quotas without retreating towards tokenism".

Which naturally begged the question why women's rugby, unlike soccer or Gaelic games, is "still in its infancy". Could it be that the IRFU's venerable committee men never even entertained the idea for well over a century?

Browne's statement was loaded with rugby's familiar self-importance too. What, he was asked, were the special skillsets required? He kept digging. "The skillsets I'm referring to are rugby skillsets, understanding the game, understanding how clubs work, understanding how clubs and the game fit within the structure of Irish rugby."

Normally the "average member on an IRFU committee" will have spent between 10 and 15 years building up his "rugby wisdom" down at the lower rungs of administration. Such is the complexity of the sport and sanctity of an IRFU committee. They really can only come from inside the system. Even an institution as hidebound and clandestine as the civil service has conceded the need for outsiders nowadays, for fresh thinking and fresh energy at the highest levels of the pyramid. But you have to climb the IRFU's ladder from within. And you have to climb it for 10 to 15 years, like a good old-fashioned time server. You have to endure the torture of boredom by committee.

One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the very "structure" of the game is designed to exclude the sort of woman who prefers to get things done rather than talk about getting things done. We are reliably informed, too, that it is harder to climb a ladder in a skirt and heels. Maybe it's time that Deputy Troy brought the IRFU on a fact-finding mission to meet the women of Ballynacargy: the ultimate culture clash, over tea and buns.

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