Sport Rugby

Friday 20 April 2018

Peter Bills: Coghlan and co embody true spirit of game

Peter Bills

Clattering boots on tarmac, the warm-up moves in the dressing-room; the scene is familiar but for one thing -- not a single cauliflower ear is in sight.

But then again, you'd be seriously concerned if a group of girls sported such accoutrements of a rugby life.

Girls and rugby? The very notion still sticks in the throat of some long past their sell-by date. It shouldn't, if for one reason alone. The girls' game is now very often the truest representation of the founding fathers' notion of this sport.

If you doubt that, take yourself off to Ashbourne tomorrow night (7.30 kick-off) for the opening match of the Six Nations Women's Championship. Ireland against Italy promises to be rattling good entertainment. Who will you see there?

Well, Fiona Coghlan is a 28-year-old loose-head prop and Ireland's captain. She won the first of her 48 caps for Ireland as a hooker. She is also a teacher at Lucan Community College, Dublin.

She is strikingly attractive and cheerfully welcoming. She has been playing rugby since the age of 19. Why rugby? "I started playing when I was in college at Limerick. My brother played rugby for Clontarf and down in Limerick, it was the sport to play.

"Besides, I was sports mad and would have tried anything. I also played gaelic football and basketball."

So, what drew her to this rugby life, one in which the women's game mirrors the men's game in the days before professionalism. She says she found the game a lot more technical than others and regarded that as a challenge, both mentally and physically.

She plays for UL Bohs and loves the comradeship and fun generated by rugby in its amateur guise. "You've got to love it really, we don't get paid. We might get a tracksuit and a few t-shirts, but if you didn't love it, there would be few other incentives.

"The weekends away are tiring and then you have to get home and prepare for work the next morning."

It will come as no surprise to hear that down in Limerick, they take their rugby just as seriously for the girls as the guys. The girls are put through an academy just like the guys and they receive high-class coaching. Coghlan praises Ian Costello, now Bohemians' senior men's team coach in AIL Division 1A, as one of those who helped fire her imagination for the sport.

"He is a really good coach. A lot of the girls took up rugby in college, but there is still only one women's team at Bohs. Ideally, we need to establish a second team."

At the launch of the Six Nations in London last week, the girls from each of the competing nations sat in the same room as the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Declan Kidney, Martin Johnson, Steve Borthwick and players and coaches from all participating countries. Around the men's tables, the media crowded. For the most part, the girls sat and chatted alone.

Does Coghlan find that depressing? "I understand everyone wants to talk to Brian O'Driscoll and the men's game generates a lot of money. But we still have our love of the sport and we are realistic. Any media coverage is good for us."

A love of the sport -- what could be closer to the heart of William Webb Ellis, founding father of the game? Yet Coghlan admits there are frustrations.

"At times, when people don't know where our games are on, you think: 'Why don't you know, why don't you bother to look and find out?' It would always be nice to get extra publicity and support, but it is not for want of trying."

And those odious comparisons some make between the men's and women's games, which denigrate the women's as inferior? Coghlan has a smart answer to that one. "You need to see skill and commitment whichever game you are watching. There are still the stereo-type views that women's rugby is full of big butch players.

"That's not true. And besides, there are sometimes poor quality men's games as well."

True, very true.

Irish Independent

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