Joanne O’Riordan: IRFU needs to move carefully on reforming women’s rugby

Head of women’s performance role and prospect of player contracts are positive signs

The beauty of women’s sports is that it doesn’t need to follow the same building template as the men’s game. Women’s sports provide different opportunities, marketing ideas and even a blank slate in terms of how you build the game, the age-old adage of grassroots vs professionalism. The IRFU template seems to be about promoting women’s rugby through the Women’s Sevens programme, as it’s easier to deliver that programme to schools and clubs who may not have the numbers for 15s. And you could also make an Olympics if you’re really lucky.

The only problem is sevens rugby is not as popular as 15s here. Think about the Tokyo Olympics versus the Six Nations promotion. It was an incredible achievement, but aside from Love Island and Dancing with the Stars alumni in Greg O'Shea and Jordan Conroy, the Irish public just aren't that interested in the sevens game.

And yet, the IRFU is placing a large emphasis on Women's Sevens to the detriment of the 15-a-side game. Against England last weekend, Ireland were without Lucy Mulhall, Stacey Flood, Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, Eve Higgins and Béibhinn Parsons who were involved in a sevens training camp. Again, these players weren't going to stop the onslaught by England, but it may not have been death by a thousand cuts, more like death by 995 cuts.

Ireland coach Greg McWilliams really had the odds stacked against him. Professional vs amateur. Full-strength squad vs slightly-depleted squad. Strength and conditioning vs part-time work. Resources vs bare minimum. In all fairness to McWilliams, 69-0 wasn’t that bad when you actually see the differences.


Unfortunately, the playing pool in Ireland is too small to be pulling players to and from squads. The way the domestic league is played now means numbers just aren’t there to have individual selections per team. Of course, that in itself is reliant on other sources of investment that the IRFU probably don’t have.

As for the professionalism argument, the Irish squad are professionals mentally, albeit not in actuality. When Aoife McDermott threw up a picture of herself on Twitter heading into work Monday morning after the game against England, she probably didn’t expect it to become an active rally cry for professional contracts now. The IRFU has since come out saying contracts may be an option for 2023 after hiring a new head of women’s performance. The application for that title, which had great interest, closed on Monday.

Future generations

So, the truth is that the potential new head of women’s performance could be the person to transform the state of the women’s game. A game that was Ireland’s to dominate and lay down some incredible pathways and foundations for future generations just fewer than 10 years ago. That isn’t the case, and now Ireland find themselves third, if not fourth, in a Six Nations tournament they had dominated just a few years ago.

While professionalism and contracts would narrow the ever-growing gap between Ireland and the rest, how this pathway is laid out is just as important. New IRFU chief executive Kevin Potts has been pragmatic and optimistic in how he wants things done. He has held his hands up about the failings in the women's game, publicly apologised and taken the criticism on the chin. His biggest task is to look at other unions around him, see what template and structure can fit the IRFU, and help steady the ship and stop the Irish teams from slipping.

Right now, England are fully professional, which may not be the correct option for Ireland yet, but adapting similar strategies from Wales and Italy might be a better option. Italy have just invested €350,000 in the women's team, placing 25 players on contracts for up to 130 days with the national team and putting younger players on a scholarship system.

Wales announced recently that it would contract 12 players full-time with several others on part-time deals. The Telegraph reported that each of the full-time contracts are worth about £19,000 (€22,500), while the retainers are worth about £7,500 (€8,900). France also mixes full- and part-time deals, reportedly at the maximum price of €1,600 per month before tax and any performance bonuses.

The IRFU needs to move carefully. One wrong slip could prove very costly. However, the opportunities are endless. We expect these athletes to be professional but refuse to reward them or bring them to our ideal standard. Sport is a business, and so is rugby. Women’s rugby is a growing market with growing interest. It’s time for unions and those in rugby to start treating the game with the respect it deserves.