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The only way is up if IRFU listen to people who ‘give a f**k’ about women’s rugby

A humiliating defeat to England is on the cards and the IRFU must listen to the people most concerned about the state of our women’s game

Ireland must brace themselves for the visit of a powerful, all-conquering England side to Musgrave Park. Photograph: Sighinolfi/Inpho

It’s hard to think of any fixture involving an Irish women’s international team that was engulfed in as much dread as Saturday’s Six Nations meeting with England at Musgrave Park.

Dispatches from across the Irish Sea have hardly helped calm the nerves.

Writing in The Telegraph, Fiona Tomas suggested that there was a real chance that England could score a record 100 points or more in the game, inflicting on Ireland “the biggest humiliation in Six Nations history”.

The London Times’ Stephen Jones went further, reckoning that Ireland not only faced a defeat of that magnitude, their players’ safety could actually be at risk.


“The contest with England’s forwards is potentially dangerous,” he said. So much so, he even skirted with the notion that the game shouldn’t be played at all.

Granted, Jones has never been a stranger to raising the hackles of Irish rugby folk, but he hasn’t been alone in pointing to the worrying disparity between the teams’ strength, power and experience.

But Niamh Briggs, the former Irish captain who is now assistant coach of the national team, was infuriated by that class of talk, describing it as “the most disrespectful thing” she’d ever heard.

Former Ireland captain Niamh Briggs left drained at external noise surrounding women’s rugby teamOpens in new window ]

More hurt for Ireland in Parma as prospect of Six Nations wooden spoon looms largeOpens in new window ]

And she also spoke this week about feeling “drained” by the negative talk surrounding this team, in particular the conversation that followed Tomas’s Telegraph article about the IRFU’s treatment of the players.

And, of course, that article included an allegation that “a prominent figure” in the sport here was heard to say “who gives a **** about women’s rugby?” (in vino veritas, probably) during a speech by IRFU president John Robinson at a dinner last month, when Robinson referred to the progress the union had made with the women’s game.

So, along with defeats for Ireland in all three of their Six Nations games so far, that’s the grim backdrop to Saturday’s encounter against a five-in-a-row seeking English side that has scored 31 tries in three games and boasts a points difference of +170. Ireland have managed just two tries so far, their points difference -93.

David v Goliath was an evenly-matched contest in comparison.

It was a relief to hear Irish captain Nichola Fryday say that several of the squad had quit social media during the campaign, Briggs doing the same, because of the nature of some of the comments about the team.

No one, needless to say, should pay any heed to anonymous trolls, especially when they’re basement-dwelling Neanderthals, but when the players were reading stuff like “changing rooms behind the bins too good for this useless crowd” and “they’re devaluing the green jersey”, it’s too easy to tell them to brush it off.

They’re giving it everything they have, when their everything isn’t close to enough just yet, and that’s what they were seeing on their feeds.

It has, then, been one unending blame game since the beginning of this campaign, the IRFU, the coaches and the players themselves all taking flak for the team being two defeats away from their first wooden spoon in 19 years.

In the intervening period, need we be reminded, Ireland won a Grand Slam, two Six Nations titles, finished in the top three 12 times, and reached a World Cup semi-final.

And then it all went pear-shaped. And, debate-wise, it’s been Groundhog Day ever since.

That’s why the criticism the Virgin Media panel of Fiona Hayes, Sene Naoupu and Jenny Murphy received after their take on that Telegraph article was harsh, all of them long since tiring of the off-the-field stuff, wishing the focus could be on the actual rugby. Because during all three of their international careers, the actual rugby was often an afterthought in the chat.

As Murphy put it about the “who gives a ****” bloke, most probably Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s godfather, his like have always pockmarked Irish rugby, and always will. So, brush him off, leave him to his free bar. And work with the people who give a **** about the women’s game.

But do they exist in the IRFU’s snazzier offices? There’s the question.

Possibly not, but the hope is that they’re now sufficiently mortified by the current state of the women’s game – not necessarily out of any genuine concern, more because their sponsors are asking “WTF?” – that they might be spurred in to some form of action come the end of this Six Nations campaign.

What shape might that take? Well, you’d hope they might be coaxed out from behind their barricades to at least have a chat about it all – and, more importantly, listen – rather than, say, sending poor old Greg McWilliams in to battle in the press room armed with a sling when confronted with a spray of AK-47s.

Best of all, they’d listen to the likes of Lynne Cantwell, Fiona Coghlan and Lindsay Peat, a shamefully unused ‘brains trust’, who know better than they ever will about what needs to be done to get things back on track. The fact that Cantwell was lost to South African rugby – where she is the high-performance manager of their women’s team – is still unforgivable.

She was one of the more calming voices the last week in the midst of the mayhem when she appeared on RTÉ’s Against the Head, insisting that this team “has a chance of a competitive future, but it’s not going to happen overnight”. They’re “building”, she said, they’re “going in the right direction”.

She conceded, though, that this was “year one” in their development. But there have been so many year ones of late, you’d lose count.

Saturday will, most likely, be grim. It could well be “the biggest humiliation in Six Nations history”. From there, the only way, surely, is up. But only if the IRFU listen to the voices that give a **** about the state of our women’s game.