The implicit recognition for the players and her sport ensured Fiona Coghlan coveted the Irish Times/Irish Sports Council Sportswoman of the Year Award she received yesterday.
As captain of the Irish rugby team that won the Grand Slam this year for the first time in the team’s history, Coghlan succeeded Katie Taylor, who won the award for her gold medal exploits in the London Olympics.
Twice now in two years the trophy has fallen to athletes who have had to fight off the pitch as well as on it for their respective sports. Coghlan and her team have earned a further seal of approval for their historic success with their 2014 Six Nations match against Italy, for the first time, being scheduled to take place at the Aviva Stadium after the men's match.
"Remarkable performers in women's sport, once again raised the bar with success at national and international events. Their achievements, particularly under the Irish banner, captured the public imagination," said Irish Times Editor Kevin O'Sullivan.
“I cast my mind back to a freezing and wet afternoon in Milan last March when the Irish team sealed the Grand Slam with as much bravery and resilience as you are likely to witness on a football pitch.”
The loosehead prop was presented with the award at a gala event in Dublin, where 76-year-old Rosemary Smith was also given a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her place as a pioneer in the early years of motor sport.
“We love playing in Ashbourne. It’s a great pitch and the spectators are almost on top of you, so close it’s a brilliant atmosphere,” said Coghlan. “But I think it is important for us to play in the national stadium and it raises the profile even more. There’s also the fact that the men’s game against Italy is probably Brian O’Driscoll’s last game in Aviva Stadium. It’s important for women’s rugby that we play in the best venue that we have.
“It is important that the game gets that exposure on the bigger stage. You need to be successful for people to stand up and give you respect.”
Coghlan beat off other strong contenders. Annalise Murphy, Ireland’s European sailing champion and Fionnuala Britton, who won the European Cross Country title last December in Budapest were two of 13 other athletes (some months had double winners) in contention.
Gaelic games also produced award winners during the year. Football’s Cora Staunton and Juliet Murphy as well as camogie star Therese Maher were monthly winners while hockey’s Nikki Symmons, who was advised by her doctor to quit the game two years ago, has gone on to win her 200th senior cap.
"Yes to be honest I was shocked . . .Fionnuala Britton, Annalise Murphy and the rest of the girls in there . . . ..I think it was just the profile and to win five games on the trot, everyone realises how difficult that is when you are away from home," said Coghlan. "I suppose it was also where we had come from in a short space of time and that's what people noticed most, that everyone's in there working hard."
"It is recognition and I've got to thank the Irish Times and the Sports Council – people that have a lot of things to say about sport. I think it's hugely important. As much as I want another Grand Slam, this is lovely and something we will definitely look back on. It will be up there on the mantle piece with my Grand Slam medal."
With away matches against the traditionally two strongest teams in the championship, England and France, Ireland face a tougher schedule than last season if they are to retain their crown in 2014.
“Everyone knows that’s a hard thing to do,” she added. “We’re playing at Twickenham and England will be out for revenge. We’re going back to Pau where we had a one-point defeat two years ago. But where we have come from I think we will definitely be up there for another few years.”
Coghlan has been involved with the Irish team for 12 years since winning her first cap against Spain.
There were seven names on the monthly list that had not been there before with the awards now in their 10th year since jockey Cathy Gannon was the inaugural winner. Many of the big names were present, although Britton was an absentee as the athlete was taking part in a competition in Belgium.
"Over the ten years of these awards, I have been struck by one particular thing, how unassuming the winners have been, whether Olympic champions or just monthly winners," said Irish Times Sports Editor Malachy Logan. "They don't carry the surly baggage of their male counterparts and what a refreshing change that is."