Sunday 16 June 2019

Lots done, more to do for Irish women's team

Ireland's Lucy Mulhall who was presented with the BNY Mellon Womens Sevens Player of the Year 2015 award at the Hibernia College IRUPA Rugby Player Awards 2015 (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE)
Ireland's Lucy Mulhall who was presented with the BNY Mellon Womens Sevens Player of the Year 2015 award at the Hibernia College IRUPA Rugby Player Awards 2015 (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE)
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

A home Rugby World Cup ups the ante for more game-time and off-the-field support.

Less than six hours after the announcement that Ireland will host the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup, the annual Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA) awards took place on Wednesday evening.

It was a night to celebrate everything good about Irish rugby. And the estimated 800 people present showed their appreciation of players like Paul O'Connell and Robbie Henshaw.

But there was a glaring omission; there was no award for a player from the other Irish team which won a Six Nations this season. The women's success was not part of the celebrations with no recognition for a player like Niamh Briggs, Sophie Spence, Heather O'Brien or take your pick (there was an award on the night for the women's sevens player of the year Lucy Mulhall.

Wednesday went from the excitement of Briggs dreaming about captaining her country in a World Cup match in Ireland to a national awards ceremony with no official acknowledgement of the women's captain and our Six Nations champions.

Yet that same evening in London at the Rugby Players Association Players' awards, there was an England Women's Player of the Year award which was won by World Cup winner Rochelle Clark.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't me cribbing about just the absence of an award. But it is about everything it represents and the representation of the women's squad.

So why the disconnect? It's quite simple. These players are not part of IRUPA. While it covers most other aspects of elite rugby, including women's sevens, IRUPA does not currently represent amateur players like Briggs and Co. This is something IRUPA would like to look at.

The day after their awards, IRUPA CEO Omar Hassanein said that down the line they would potentially like to look into representing players from the women's XV squad and help them from a player development aspect.

In England, the Rugby Players Association (RPA) extends to the women's game. For example before this year's Six Nations, they organised a workshop to help members in the women's squad develop their CVs and to generally keep career options outside of rugby to the forefront of players' minds.


Irish rugby has two years to get our national women's squad into the best possible position before the Women's Rugby World Cup comes here. One off-the-field way of helping our women's squad become better primed is for players to have access to an independent players' body like IRUPA.

On top of the support from the IRFU, who the team deal directly with, amateur elite sportswomen would benefit from additional advice when it comes to dealing with matters like training expenses (which they get from the IRFU), possible marketing appearance fees and the best way to maximise their individual potential with a sponsor coming up to the World Cup.

The words of Women's Gaelic Players Association Chairperson Aoife Lane from the launch of the Women's GPA in January come to mind: "I think women by nature are very good at 'making do'. We're great self-managers. It can be to our detriment so we have to raise expectations and have women acknowledge that they're good and that they deserve a bit more."

There are other areas which need to be looked at - the most obvious being playing more Tests.

As it stands between now and the 2017 WRWC, Ireland will play only 10 Tests which will all come during the Six Nations. Organising Tests is up to the unions and the IRFU said all options will be looked at leading up to the WRWC.

What about organising one or two Tests during the November Series in 2016? On the eve of a men's game, the women's team could play at Donnybrook - a place which should become their new home.

There's also the area of live TV coverage over the next two Six Nations. There is plenty of merit in televising the U-20s but there is equally as much merit in showing the women's games live (as a start, even the home games). Their championship-winning Six Nations game against Scotland this year drew an average audience of 89,400 for RTE2 on that Sunday afternoon.

When Ireland played England after the men's game at Twickenham in 2014, RTE scored a super average viewing figure of 292,000 for that game.

Almost three million in France tuned into watch the WRWC on TV when it was host country for the 2014 event. The tournament in Ireland in 2017 could be the biggest yet.

It is vital the Irish players get the best support possible between now and then. And maybe at the IRUPA awards in 2018, we will get the chance to stand in ovation for a player who was part of an Irish Women's Rugby World Cup success.

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