Sunday 22 April 2018

Billy Keane - Hard road from the shadows to the spotlight for women's rugby in Ireland

Ireland’s captain Claire Molloy. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ireland’s captain Claire Molloy. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The co-ordinates of time, place and people are never forgotten when our team wins big, but there's no come-all-ye yet for the Irish heroines of Marcoussis.

I'd imagine though it wouldn't be easy to get an end line to rhyme with Marcoussis, but great deeds need to be remembered in song and story.

If you were to mention the Heroes of Soldier Field, well then, the stories would be told of how it was you were there, or where it was you watched the 'first' win over the All Blacks, and with whom.

Soldiers Field wasn't the first win. The Irish women's team beat the All Blacks in the Paris suburb of Marcoussis, three years and a few days ago.

What's more the win was recorded in the 2014 Rugby World Cup and New Zealand had won 20 or more in-a-row in the World Cup before that defeat.

That not-so-famous unsung day in Marcoussis was one of the best in the history of Irish sport.

Advantage

Ireland take on Australia in the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup at tea-time tomorrow in Belfield. The match is a 3,500 sell-out.

There is an element of fairness in that home advantage isn't as valuable to the teams but when Ireland played England in the Grand Slam last March, there were more than 6,000 people present in Donnybrook.

The organisers, though, have done an excellent job. Belfield has been turned into a rugby village.

The players are staying on campus. Friendships will be made and fun will be had.

The teams were fast-tracked through the airport and have been well-minded. But there is a very gruelling schedule. Too gruelling some would say, and that some would be right.

The women have to play three games in 11 days - and that's just the group stage.

Then the competition moves north for the final phases. Rugby is an all-Ireland game and Belfast deserves to host the bigger fixtures.

There's a lovely vibe about this World Cup. Emerging nations are being looked after and the players have been treated with great kindness.

The welcoming message will help our bid for the men's tournament. Well done to all concerned. You don't need a big budget to make a big impression.

Ireland will be very competitive and won the Grand Slam in 2013, but England are a full- time, professional team and will probably win out.

That last match in that Grand Slam triumph was played in a muddy field in Italy. You would get more at a Junior B Gaelic football final. The heroines of Parabiago deserved more. There's no easy rhyming with Parabiago either. That one would try Ed Sheeran.

But women's rugby has come a long way. There was a day when the Irish women's team were forced to watch the Ireland-England men's game on TV in an 'admin' area after they played in the curtain-raiser.

Rosie Foley was fuming and she told me so. I wrote about the way our women's team were treated. I might as well have bowled marbles down O'Connell Street in a game of bus skittles, but now the games will be screened all over the world.

The Irish girls had to pay their own way in the early days of the game. Rosie told our Cian Tracey that international players were forced to sleep on the floors of friends' flats when they came to Dublin for squad sessions. Most had to buy their own Irish kit.

We didn't know our women were so badly treated. But we didn't ask, either. Yes, there have been massive improvements and expenses are paid.

In RTÉ, women are paid less than the men. In Irish rugby, the women aren't paid any wages at all.

More needs to be done to encourage young girls to play team sports. More needs to be done to get girls playing after the age of 16 in all codes. The fall-off is huge in ladies GAA.

Did you ever wonder why it is that female GAA players are known officially as 'ladies' while the rugby they are 'women'? I know this will come as a great surprise to most of you; I do not know the answer.

We can't blame the boys for everything. There are reports which prove far more men watch women's GAA games on TG4, and far more men go to Six Nations women's matches. But that's a story for a fuller treatment on another day.

Achievement

Claire Molloy is our new captain. She is a doctor practising in Wales but somehow manages to fit in rugby. This will be her third world cup. That's some achievement for an amateur player who has a tough job, a long way from home.

Claire played inter-county Gaelic football for Galway. Louise Galvin played for Kerry and was special even as a kid.

Ireland coach Tom Tierney has widened his options with GAA players and we now have a big enough squad.

Our women proved in Marcoussis we can best anyone on our day. They have trained so hard and had to make so many sacrifices in this the World Cup year of their busy working lives.

We do have a good chance of getting to the semi-finals. Skill, courage, togetherness and organisation can go a long way.

Ravenhill and surrounds will rock when the finals take place. Ravenhill rhymes with a good many sounds. You'd never know. There might be a third verse yet.

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