Last weekend, the country watched as Johnny Sexton led the Irish men’s team to a Grand Slam on home soil, a feat that hadn’t been achieved in 75 years, raising high hopes for the upcoming men’s Rugby World Cup.
This year marks a decade since the Irish women’s rugby team achieved similar heights: a Grand Slam, a Triple Crown (if there was one for the women’s game), all while balancing careers outside of the sport.
What followed were some of the peaks of Irish women’s rugby to date: a historic victory over New Zealand, fourth-place in the World Cup in 2014, and winning the championship again in 2015.
The women’s game has changed significantly since then, as tomorrow’s Women’s Six Nations proves with league sponsorship (albeit without prize money), some professionalism, a stand-alone championship from the men’s, better media coverage and improved standards, both in terms of players themselves and also the environment around the game.
While the Irish women’s team haven’t yet managed to replicate those successes again, the 2013 team sowed the seeds for the current landscape of women’s rugby in Ireland, as young fans at the time became invested, eventually becoming provincial players. By making history with the first broadcast of a women’s international, they showed what could be done with a cohesive team, with the determination and the ability to win, despite apparent obstacles and setbacks.
A key moment on their journey to success was a now-infamous trip to Pau in 2012.
“That France trip was actually my first away trip as manager,” Gemma Crowley laughs. “It was probably one of the most stressful trips. But actually it’s probably one of the trips that I look back at with the fondest memories.”
There was a train they weren’t going to make, encouraging an off-duty bus driver to bring them to the other train station, getting an overnight train (“a cattle trail” as the girls remembered it”, says Crowley), landing in about 7.30am, falling into bed, before unsuccessfully trying to push out the match due to a frozen pitch.
“In 2012, there was a shift in belief. We obviously had that awful journey to France, but we come very close to beating them at home,” says Ailish Egan, a prop on that Irish team. “Those experiences in 2012 gave us, as a group, a bit of encouragement, motivation and belief in ourselves that we could do something, that we could challenge those at the top.”
[ Match ready hair: ‘If it’s not tight and tucked away... it’s like James Lowe on the wing’ ]
Those 2012 games showed the team they were “there, thereabouts,” says Clare Molloy, who played on the back row.
“We were putting in performances, getting close to teams, but we needed a win to believe that actually what we were doing was working. That trip really galvanised us because it felt like nobody cared about us. When people show you that you don’t matter, you say, ‘well actually I disagree’. As a group, that brought us closer together.” says Gillian Bourke, hooker on the Irish team that year.
“Girls were saying the media ‘aren’t covering our performance’ and I was like ‘well, we just need to go and win something’. I said it a bit flippantly, I really didn’t think we were gonna win a Grand Slam the following year,” says Fiona Coghlan, who captained the team to that year’s victories.
“It was one of my favourite teams to ever be involved in that period up until 2014. I don’t think I’ve ever met a team that matched it,” says Bourke. “The first year I got my cap, my mom was quite sick and then two weeks before the first match of Six Nations in 2009, she passed away. Irish rugby is literally the thing that kept me going.
“That was invaluable. It [the team] was like a really important family; you hit the highs and lows together, but ultimately I think because we were all on that journey, we all bought into it. It’s probably why we were able to push each other, and actually get somewhere.
“It was the perfect storm really; the right players, coaches and management. There was just something about that group that everything fit. I don’t think you could recreate it but some part of it is we just got lucky that we all ended up there in the one moment. But the other part of it is there was a lot of hard work done from top to bottom.”
Wales 10 Ireland 12
The opening game was away against Wales. It was a tight game that ended dramatically with Ireland winning 12-10, some of that success can be attributed to winger Ali Miller’s big toe.
“We were real history makers that year,” says Irish lock at the time, Marie ‘Maz’ O’Reilly, “It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for two things: Ali Miller’s big toe and Gill Bourke scoring in the corner.”
The ball was held up by winger Miller’s big toe, preventing Wales from scoring a potentially game-changing try.
“I saw a photo of it recently and literally her big toe is stuck out and she managed to knock the ball away from Wales touching down [for a try]. It’s those small moments that can change history in some ways.”
“On a different day, a referee could have given it as a try so we were fortunate,” says Coghlan.
“We just didn’t play our best rugby but we grinded out a win. It was a bit of a kick up the backside really to get things settled,” says Molloy.
“No one paid any attention, no-one really cared except for fans, close fans within the women’s game and family as well, says Coghlan.
Ireland 25 England 0
England were up next in Ashbourne.
“There was a lot spoken about the English backline – that they had all been pulled to play Sevens – but it was still a formidable pack with a huge amount of experience. Even the backs that were left were quite experienced as well so they still had a strong team,” says Coghlan.
“Thinking about it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It was 25-0, to beat England it was just huge,” says Crowley “I remember looking over at the scoreboard before full-time going like ‘is that actually really the case?’”
“Winning was obviously great, but then holding them to nil as well. I don’t think that had been done in a long time with England. Everyone starts to sit up and pay attention when you beat the English. When the bandwagon started to roll, we were like ‘welcome aboard, come on the journey’’” says Coghlan.
“I remember being like, ‘what the hell’s happening?’” says Egan. “Well, this is not normal and going into the changing rooms at half-time thinking, ‘well, clearly they’re going to come back and, beat us. So we just have to batten down the hatches’. That was a surreal game. It was an out-of-body experience.”
Scotland 3 Ireland 30
At this point, they’d beaten Wales and England, leaving only Scotland for the Triple Crown, if there was one in the women’s game.
“There is no trophy for the women’s Triple Crown,” says Coghlan. “Again, not something that hugely bothers me, it wasn’t even something we really spoke about before.
“Afterwards Scotland presented us with a quail or something, it’s essentially like a little silver bowl, we were pretending that it was the Triple Crown trophy and people did believe us.”
Ireland 15 France 10
“The bandwagon was certainly starting to roll when you’re welcoming France home on International Women’s Day and things are going your way,” says Coghlan.
“Before the game, we heard that Michael D Higgins had decided to come out. It was the first time any President had come to our games so that was huge. Things were just in tandem. There was a really good flow and a huge win, 15-10.”
“Ashbourne had become a fortress,” laughs Crowley. “My god, the people in Ashbourne, Bill Duggan and everybody in Ashbourne Rugby Club were absolutely amazing to deal with. You’d get the warmest welcome. They couldn’t have done more for the players.”
“The next day we knew we’d the championship won,” says Coghlan. “So we knew we’d be getting the trophy regardless but it was like that’s not good enough when you’re on a roll for a Grand Slam. Obviously it’s more than we ever achieved before but it’s very important that you continue on your quest then and go out and do something really special.”
Italy 3 Ireland 6
By this point, Irish momentum had really built. People flew in from New Zealand, honeymoon plans were changed, past players and people close to the squad all travelled to Italy.
For Molloy, she almost hadn’t made it.
“I was in my final year of medicine. I had debated about whether I would do the Six Nations. I had my clinical exams after the Italy weekend, so surely that’d be silly, you wouldn’t want to be doing that before the most important exams of your life.”
Until Ali Miller’s mum intervened. “‘Claire you can’t miss this’ And then I just kinda got onto Goose [Ireland coach Philip Doyle]. ‘Please can you include me in your selection? I’d like to make myself available.’
“I didn’t tell my parents,” she laughs. “They saw my name on the team sheet and were like, ‘are you in Italy?’” I was absolutely wrecked on the flight. When I got there the girls were brilliant.”
“We were presenting with symptoms to test her,” remembers O’Reilly. “This was the night before her biggest match ever and she’s prepping for college stuff.”
While there was good weather on their arrival, they woke up on game day to sleet and snow.
“Bad weather is such a great leveller at times and there’s not much you can do about it, we just had to get on with it,” says Coghlan.
“Oh God, I can still feel the cold in my bones,” says Molloy.
“It was the first game of women’s international rugby to be shown on national TV and it was an absolutely crap game of rugby,” says Coghlan. “That was certainly not the best that we could be, but the conditions just didn’t allow it. We knew we were a far better team than Italy but it was like playing stuck in the mud, you couldn’t run, it was absolutely freezing.
“Thankfully it went our way, and we got the win. Yeah look, it was huge, and the fans that were there were brilliant. It was just brilliant.”
It wasn’t confirmed, but largely suspected that Molloy contracted hyperthermia during the game.
“At half-time they were worried about me and I was like, ‘don’t you dare take me off’. I dunno whether they just thought it would be better for me just to keep moving and running,” she laughs.
And then, the whistle blew, they had done it all: the Triple Crown, the championship, the Grand Slam.
“That game, against Italy was so awful. I was relieved [when it ended],” laughs Egan. “It was the relief that we created this opportunity for ourselves and to be able to finish it was huge. Honestly. It was amazing. It was absolutely unreal.”
Following the poor game in the worse conditions, there was no hot water in the showers, remembers O’Reilly. “I just remember, going – cause you’ve covered in mud – I need to wash, but you’re just trying to lean your head in so that you don’t have to fully get wet.”
“We celebrated well into the night with the fans and family and RTÉ crew, in the pub. They ran out of bloody everything, even glasses!” says Coghlan.
“It was brilliant. Just one of those epic days. My sister was there dressed as a leprechaun for the day,” laughs O’Reilly. “It was brilliant, great memories. It all rolled on from there. it was a real springboard to the success in the 2014 World Cup.”