Tania Rosser encapsulates the determination of women’s rugby in Ireland
Irish sportswomen need more determination and belief than their male counterparts
‘Born in New Zealand, Tania Rosser is a ferociously skilled player.’ Photograph: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
In the corridors of victory there are no wimps allowed. We are in a golden age of Irish sportswomen. The under-19 Irish women’s soccer team were the first to qualify for the under-19 European Championship. Last year, the women’s rugby team won the Six Nations Grand Slam. Katie Taylor is the best sportsperson we’ve ever produced. On Friday, Team Boatylicious, a crew of four rowers featuring Iris hwoman Aoife Ní Mhaoileoin, became the first all-female four to get from California to Hawaii in the Great Pacific Race.
But as women, being among the best at football, rugby, boxing and rowing requires a lot of leaning in. They have (in general) less funding, less public support and fewer sponsorship opportunities. While male stars are pampered and paid, some of our best female sportswomen work full-time jobs while togging out for their country. They need more determination, more belief. Yet when they rise to the top the victories are so much sweeter. That’s what made the Irish women’s rugby team’s win over New Zealand at the World Cup last week epic.
DeterminationIt’s perhaps unfair to single out players in such a complete and cohesive team, but the story of Tania Rosser encapsulates the determination of women’s rugby in Ireland. Born in New Zealand, Rosser is a ferociously skilled player. In between her first and second World Cups (this is her third) she had a son and was back on the pitch playing three months after his birth. The New Zealand match was her 50th cap for Ireland.
She had effectively retired from international rugby four years ago, losing her motivation for the game and struggling with an injury that necessitated her shoulder to be reconstructed. She came back, regained fitness and fought her way into the first team again.
Rocky Balboa would cower in the corner. Rosser named her son Serge, after Serge Blanco, the French player who brought his team to the first World Cup final in 1987 where eventually they lost to Rosser’s home nation.
In the semi-final against Australia though, Blanco, like the Irish, showed phenomenal determination. France were behind three times in that match. As the score levelled out to 24-24 in Sydney, one of the greatest tries in rugby history was about to be scored. The lead-up was a masterclass of speed, flow and opportunism. After turning over the ball from an Australian-won lineout, the magic began. Two passes, a seemingly rudderless kick into Australian possession, and the ball scrambled back by Les Bleus. Then, on the ninth pass, Blanco grabbed it, powered forward and touched down in the corner. Skill, yes; but France wanted it.
It’s interesting to see how far rugby has come since then. There were fewer than 18,000 people at that semi-final. And like the Black Ferns versus the Irish, the Wallabies were stunned.
‘Frozen’There is a humour and frankness to the Irish women’s rugby team. The night before the match they watched Frozen, one of the few animated films that offers girls role models outside of the traditional submissive Disney paradigm. When that film was released last year it turned out that young girls wanted a cartoon that had two female leads, and was about strong personalities and not weak damsels in distress. It became the highest-grossing animated film ever, making over $1 billion at the box office.
The team sang along to the movie’s Oscar-winning song, Let It Go: “It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through/No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free.”
In this newspaper, Gavin Cummiskey reported from France on the team’s preparation, with Lynne Cantwell remembering the start of the match after the intimidating haka from their opposition, “We put our hands in and said ‘Let’s go f***ing mental’ That was our team speech.”
How these players talk about the game – never mind how they play it – sparkles with enthusiasm and honesty. There are no press conference cliches that we’ve become so used to thanks to the media- trained male players, cautious about their image and sponsorship deals.
When the women played Italy at Lansdowne Road this year on International Women’s Day, crowds of people waited outside the stadium to applaud them. It was one of the most touching displays of support and appreciation in sport that I’ve witnessed.
Men’s rugby has had something of a makeover since the 1990s, when a chunk of public sentiment towards it in Ireland was coloured by reverse snobbery. Paul Howard struck a chord to which everyone hummed with Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, as many viewed rugby players as an entitled group of beefy, bratty private-school boys with floppy hair and juiced-up muscles.
Now we see the amazing Brian O’Driscoll virtually canonised, because these are stand-up guys now, total champs, restaurateurs and clothing designers, driving cars given as gifts from marketing departments. But the true grit and against-all-odds authenticity is on the women’s team. They may not be Disney, but they’re writing one hell of a fairytale.