Joanne O’Riordan: Only way is up after stellar year for women’s sport

Football World Cup qualification and Katie Taylor’s MSG bout highlight a year of achievement

As the year draws to a close and seasonal depression kicks in, it worth taking time to reflect on what a great year it has been for women’s sport, both nationally and internationally. There have been highs, lows and plenty of mould-breaking.

The immediate highlight that springs to mind is Katie Taylor becoming the first female boxer to headline the bill in Madison Square Garden, where she faced Amanda Serrano. To tell you how much this fight captured the global imagination, I was in New York the week before, and after the Puerto Rican engineer in the hotel I was staying heard my accent, he reminded me daily that Katie Taylor was going down. Happily, he was wrong.

The fight was a bloodbath, and while we are all guilty of desensitising ourselves when it comes to Katie Taylor’s achievements, her comeback from the seventh round on epitomised her status as the premier global figure in women’s boxing.

She consistently facied setbacks, personally and professionally, coming back time and time again and digging deep when things get tough. Added to that, it was the second year in a row that Ireland produced a female athlete that has broken barriers internationally, after Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the Grand National in the 182-year history of the race.

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And where Katie has led, others have followed. Kellie Harrington, Amy Broadhurst and Aoife O’Rourke all took gold for Ireland at the European Championships this year.

The Irish women’s rugby program provided a mixed year of emotion for fans. The XVs program stuttered its way to fourth in the Six Nations but faced insurmountable tasks against England and France, who continue to invest in and expand their programs. The fact Ireland started by slipping behind to Wales set off enough alarm bells in HQ to announce 29 contracts ranging from €15,000 to €30,000, with additional bonuses also up for grabs. Strength and depth in the squad are essential in the 2023 campaign to complement players like Eve Higgins, Beibhinn Parsons and Neve Jones.

Over in the Sevens program, Ireland are progressing well on the road to Paris 2024. After finishing seventh last year in the World Series, Ireland are starting to prove their worth throughout the long season. A top-four finish automatically guarantees them a spot at the Olympics, but there are also other avenues for Ireland to qualify, so next year will be a pivotal one.

Possibly a lot of people’s highlight of the entire year would be Ireland’s dramatic qualification for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023. This is the women’s national team’s first time qualifying for a major tournament. The message ended up being extremely simple from an FAI perspective: invest in a team the nation can get behind and good things will naturally happen. With Sky and Cadbury pushing the boat out to promote the girls in green, it wasn’t long before the public was behind Vera Pauw’s side. Next year could be Gen Z’s Italia 90.

LGFA and camogie also delivered wild games throughout their seasons. In a move that gives integration another boost, former president Mary McAleese is chairing an independent integration committee. Player power is also being listened to, as organisations try to come together to reach an amalgamation strategy.

Honourable mentions go to Leona Maguire, once again providing drama and excitement on the LPGA tour. Rachael Blackmore became the first woman to land the Cheltenham Gold Cup with A Plus Tard. A few days earlier, she retained the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle, a feat not achieved since AP McCoy in the 1990s.

Ciara Mageean also had an incredible year in athletics, winning silver in the 1,500m European championships and having that fantastic race in the Diamond League, where she not only defeated Laura Muir but became the fastest Irish woman ever over the distance, taking Sonia O’Sullivan’s longstanding record by two seconds.

On top of all that, record-breaking fan attendances and rising interests contribute to a growing business. As interest grows, so will demand, so media outlets and companies must rethink their strategies for the years ahead. Sporting bodies must also begin to cope with rising demands on their clubs and communities and start investing in full-time coaches who can bring amateurs to the level that can challenge for international medals or tournaments.

Time will tell what can actually happen, but the only way is up.