The She-Wolves

Ireland’s womens team (the she-wolves?) completed a memorable maiden Grand Slam in a Milan field barely fit for purpose on Sunday  – our knowledge of the women’s setup is shamefully lamentable, so we tapped up Sarah Lennon to tell us about the backdrop to all this fun and games.

It has been ten years since Ireland’s women’s team won their first 6 Nations game, in the tournament’s second season. Prior to this, there was a Home Nations tournament, but changes to the tournament were made to closer reflect the structure of the men’s game – France and Spain made up the other two berths. Ireland’s maiden win was against the Spanish (las lobas?), who were later shown the door after a decision to mirror the men’s tournament saw the introduction of Italy.

It hasn’t been an easy journey for the Irish women to get here, and while all the recent adulation is completely deserved, it is an indictment of the self-obsessed Irish media that it was only when the women were on the cusp of a Triple Crown against Scotland (against the backdrop of a less than stellar tournament from the senior men) that they suddenly turned their focus to the Irish women’s team.

While there was coverage on the IRFU and RTE websites of the opening game against Wales, it didn’t make major waves. It should have, as it represented Ireland’s first win in Wales in eight seasons. The following match saw Ireland take on England, the perennial champions of this tournament, and a staggering 25-0 win raised quite a few eyebrows. Despite it bring a weakened English team due to player rotation ahead of the Rugby 7s World Championships, it represented an outstnding victory, equivalent to the lads beating New Zealand by a similar margin.

Next was a trip to Scotland to play for the Triple Crown … with no coverage online or on TV. The 30-3 scoreline failed to demonstrate the tough nature of the win, but with the Triple Crown in the bag, the press and broadcast media sat up and paid attention. The next game (home vs France) was streamed on the RTE player (television coverage proving impossible as it clashed with the U-20’s and their sponsored jersies) and then finally, the Grand Slam decider made the cut for RTE proper (being subject to mindless analysis from Frankie surely made the she-wolves feel on a par with the men), the first time that the Irish women had appeared on Irish television. They had appeared on British television before though, in a World Cup game against England – that was on Sky Sports, a commercial broadcaster without a public service remit.

The many women who have competed for their country down the years will all share a portion of Ireland’s history-making . None more so than former captain Sarahjane Belton who made it into the 2006 World XV and was forced to retire in 2008. Belton’s pride was obvious as she sat on an RTE panel during the historic broadcast last Sunday.

In many ways the women’s game represents completely the supposed heirarchy of rugby in Ireland. Although it may say ‘UCD’ beside Brian O’Driscoll’s name in the programme, you’re unlikely to see him kitted out at the Belfield Bowl, however the women who lifted the 6 Nations trophy last Sunday can be seen on any given Sunday in their club strips at Annacotty,  Anglesea Road, Stradbrook or Shaw’s Bridge.

As things stand there are no international matches between each 6 Nations tournament, with the exception of the odd friendly with the aforementioned disenfranchised Spanish. There is an annual Inter-pro with three games for each side and the traditional decider between Leinster and Munster – these are generally a warmup for the Six Nations in November / December meaning that the Provincial/International season is around three months long. The rest of the year the women represent their club sides in league and cup matches. The system is a throwback to the amateur days of rugby, and of course the women are amateur and juggle the onerous training schedule with day jobs and college, in some cases in the UK.

The commitment and dedication shown by the women to the cause hasn’t always been reflected in investment by the IRFU. Some of the current squad will tell of having to buy their own jersies or pay for their own flights to represent their country in the not so distant past. That’s changed now , with protocols agreed in advance of travelling to Wales, Scotland and Italy after last season’s disgraceful trip to Pau. On that occasion, the IRFU accepted ‘some responsibility’ for an overnight, 17-hour trip, with the women arriving only a few hours prior to kickoff.

There is a good feeling about the Ireland women right now and television broadcasts of the homecoming also contained the news of a large investment programme from the IRFU. The women have put themselves in a position to qualify for the Rio Olympics and would be the only Irish team there, as the men will not be in attendance. The Olympics will represent another stage for many of this Grand Slam team and can only serve to continue the growth of the sport in Ireland – plus Rio will be a BLAST for any travelling fans! Player numbers are on the rise with new teams springing up everywhere, particularly in Leinster –  Old Belvedere fielded a J2 team this season with player numbers many men’s teams would envy.

Having taken major steps forward, it is imperative that RTE and the IRFU build on the support they have given to the sport this season. It would be a massive boon if the 6 Nations matches were scheduled for broadcast next season from the off. There is no doubt that winning the Grand Slam and the associated publicity, along with the hoped–for Olympic qualification, will encourage newbies to take up the sport. A recent underage girls blitz in Naas rugby club saw dozens of teams competing, many of whom were from non-traditional ruby backgrounds. Development through these avenues, an increase in playing numbers alongside support from the union and media, and the Irish women can build on this success and compete at the highest stage towards 2016 and beyond.

With thanks to Sarah Lennon.  Give her a follow on twitter here.