Sinead Kissane: Women’s biggest challenge could come from the IRFU
International team left in limbo with no clear vision of the future
When IRFU chief executive Philip Browne gave his address at an Oireachtas Committee meeting in January this year, he was convincing with his claim that there was no bigger supporter of our national women’s team than the IRFU.
Browne, who gave his address in the context of the short-lived proposal for gender quotas for sports bodies, stated: “The inference behind the suggestion of quotas is that, in some way, the existing governance model of Irish rugby is holding back the women’s game. I would suggest that the evidence is quite to the contrary.”
In relation to the IRFU’s upcoming new strategic plan, Browne said its focus is “to continue to grow and promote our game with reference to our core values, such as inclusivity and respect.”
What fantastic values “inclusivity and respect” are to espouse. But what do these values actually mean?
Do they mean not playing November internationals or not appointing a head coach for our national women’s team until just before the Six Nations?
Do they mean reducing the role of head coach to a part-time position at the start of a crucial four-year World Cup cycle?
Do “inclusivity and respect” mean players being forced to express their frustration on social media because that’s the only way their voices will be heard?
Does Browne have any understanding of the worry players may have over speaking out against the IRFU for fear of possible repercussions down the line with regards to their international futures?
Does “respect” include leaving 15s players without fitness programmes at a time when they have no head coach and no direction?
Does “inclusivity” mean making players feel like they’re in no-woman’s land with little idea about the IRFU’s short and long-term vision for their national team?
But, no, of course the IRFU aren’t “holding back the women’s game”.
Jeepers, let’s not get “very emotional” about all this as IRFU performance director David Nucifora memorably put it when he spoke about the three players who were pulled from a Six Nations game for a Sevens event in Las Vegas earlier this year.
Nucifora slapped down that criticism as “over-the-top” as fast as a Harry Arter step-over.
Dearie me, how silly we were to be concerned that the IRFU were giving preference to the Sevens over our Six Nations team in a Rugby World Cup year and misreading it as a sign of things to come. Stupid us.
If there is one word you would generally not associate with the IRFU, it is ‘casual’.
Brian O’Driscoll’s high praise of Browne’s recent presentation of Ireland’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid left you in no doubt that ‘casual’ is anathema to Browne’s excellent operation of the union.
The only version of ‘casual’ Joe Schmidt probably understands is when it comes to dress code for the various talks he gives to groups around the country without any personal remuneration for himself.
‘Casual’ would run a mile from Nucifora if you look at his effective management of the men’s game here in comparison to how Welsh rugby is struggling to keep its top stars at home.
Yet, funnily enough, ‘casual’ cropped up on the IRFU job spec for the position of national women’s head coach.
Read through the ad, however, and there’s nothing ‘casual’ about the responsibilities the role encompasses – it would almost require a committee to fulfil, not to mind one person on a part-time basis.
Of course, the ad came with the obligatory ‘equal opportunities employer’ line.
But the broader picture we’ve been getting from Ruth O’Reilly’s explosive comments to Nucifora’s recent words that the team will be “well-enough” prepared for the Women’s Six Nations leaves questions about what an ‘equal opportunities’ provider looks like such is the massive difference between the way our national men’s and women’s teams are treated.
In the build-up to a World Cup, can you imagine Schmidt’s squad being told they cannot stay overnight at Carton House during camps but must return home after training and travel back again the following morning, with players from further down the country put up at a hotel near Dublin Airport?
No, me neither. But that’s what the women’s squad had to put up with post-Six Nations and pre-WRWC.
Apart from their camp at Fota Island just before the tournament, an overnight base – like the previously-used Johnstown House Hotel in Enfield – was cut from their weekend itinerary.
Just like that, the IRFU did away with valuable bonding time between players, not to mind the cut effectively showing them where they stood in the food-chain.
What inclusivity that was. What respect. What guff the boast was that they were the “best-prepared” team going into a Women’s Rugby World Cup.
It’s unsurprising that the players made sure the internal IRFU review of the WRWC was anonymous before giving their opinions.
The IRFU are managing to make the women’s 15s team look like a problem child for them.
An IRFU statement yesterday said it was “reviewing the entire structure of the women’s game” leading up to the 2021 WRWC, yet it skimmed past the fact that the team remains in limbo.
The IRFU denied that the head coach role was “downgraded” but they miss the point that this entire debacle is degrading.
Despite numerous requests from countless media organisations, the director of women’s rugby, Anthony Eddy, continually refuses to answer questions about what exactly his plan is for our national team.
The IRFU’s ‘From Grassroots to International Success’ Strategic Plan for 2013-17 stated: “It is important to reinforce that this plan is for Irish Rugby – it is not about the IRFU – the IRFU is merely a stakeholder in this process.”
If the IRFU decides to place greater importance on the Sevens game over the 15s then they’re making it about the IRFU and not about Irish rugby.
There is no tradition here for Sevens but we have a Six Nations tradition.
What happens in a few years’ time if Eddy and Nucifora return home to Australia after deciding to change the direction of elite women’s rugby here? What will we be left with then?
The other possible repercussion is how this could affect sponsorship.
On the website of the women’s team sponsor, Aon, is the line that “valuing diversity is about fair treatment for all”.
How will they square that with the job spec of a “casual” role the IRFU have advertised for the national team they sponsor?
Also, in his Oireachtas Committee address in January, Browne spoke about how the IRFU took over women’s rugby from the disbanded IWRFU in 2008.
But this issue would make me think twice about the argument for the Camogie Association and Ladies Gaelic Football Association to join the GAA, because maybe these organisations are better off holding the sole responsibility of looking after the girls’ and women’s games.
So, what next for these players?
When there was a possibility that the Republic of Ireland women’s team could go on strike six months ago because of poor treatment by the FAI, they were supported by the PFAI. Gaelic games players have the backing of the Women’s GPA.
Ireland’s female elite rugby players do not currently have any representative players’ body, but there is the option of Rugby Players Ireland to possibly help them.
As the IRFU pointed out in a statement yesterday “the women’s programme has received a significant increase in investment in recent years”.
But this mess almost undermines the great work the likes of Nora Stapleton and others do in the IRFU to promote the game.
A few weeks ago, Nucifora said the IRFU want to build the women’s game from the bottom up, but as I subsequently wrote in these pages, it should not come at the expense of the game from the top down.
At the end of his address last January, Browne spoke about the various challenges rugby faces.
Over the past year, our national women’s team have faced challenges like playing New Zealand last November, like the Six Nations and like the challenging time of being hosts of a disappointing and frustrating World Cup.
But who could have foreseen that the biggest challenge our national women’s team face would come from the IRFU itself.