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Gordon D’Arcy: Béibhinn Parsons is the gift, IRFU must now do the giving

Professionalism is only way forward for women’s rugby and it must avoid previous pitfalls

Béibhinn Parsons was incredible against Wales.

I am not going to compare her to an Irish player from the past. She is a unique talent that comes along every 20 or so years, if Sonia and Katie are used as the ultimate examples.

But one comparison the IRFU might lean into is what happened after Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick against France in 2000. That moment presented Irish rugby with a global superstar to market the game around for a decade.

In Parsons, Irish rugby has someone who can turn investment into profit. Now, the women’s game will not make money until it fills the Aviva and they need to be invited to play in the national rugby stadium first. Donnybrook, to be fair, is a good place to build a supporter base.

But, putting on my expert business hat, investment needs to happen before there is any profit.

The men’s professional game struggled to wash its face before the pandemic. Now it is haemorrhaging €30 million a year without crowds.

We know all this. It is not a valid excuse to not invest. The Welsh, after conceding 15 tries to France and Ireland, are blaming Covid for delaying their investment in their women’s team. Anyone with any cop on knows what that really means.

Just after professionalism happened in the late 1990s, Irish rugby built the men’s game around O’Driscoll and eventually Paul O’Connell, why not do something similar with Parsons and Dorothy Wall?

Beating Wales 45-0 at the Cardiff Arms Park should be proof enough.

Unlike the RFU in England, under Conor O'Shea's steady hand, women's rugby and its All-Ireland League are not being guided by David Nucifora. The IRFU performance director brought Anthony Eddy with him from Australia in 2014 to be the director of rugby for the Sevens programme. This is a massive undertaking and yet he is also director of rugby for the women's 15-a-side game as well.

That's like an Irish tighthead prop working shifts in ICU the week of a Test match. It takes a special person to fill one of these roles, never mind both. Nobody expects Eddy to be able to double job effectively. Linda Djougang can do it because she is a superhero in PPE.

Nucifora, like him or lump him, is over the professional game and that does not include the women’s 15-a-side.

Changing this would be step one.

Step two, sorting out the women’s All-Ireland League, would go a long way to promoting the sport. It would also give the clubs a chance to shine in a meaningful, highly competitive environment.

This demands a lot of work to make sure it is not two or three super clubs.

Professionalism is unavoidable now. It should be easier to grow the women’s game simply because it is still a minority sport. The investment required is minuscule when compared to what the men’s game would need but the impact could be seismic.

Imagine designing an integrated model using the AIL, provinces and other Irish stakeholders.

Coaching the coaches is step three. The sponsorship money will come if they have something decent to brand.

The tipping point has yet to arrive, but it is no secret that professionalism has to be where female rugby ends up.

Nobody wants to be comparing this period in our history to the men’s calamitous crossover to professionalism. It took five years, and a miserable night in Lens, before the penny dropped. Half the players moved to England before an improved contract situation made a professional career in the provinces seem viable.

It needs to be different this time. And it can be.

The sight of Parsons in action on Saturday, the way she slalomed past the fastest Welsh defenders was a thing of beauty.

I haven't been this excited about an Irish sports person since Katie Taylor. The comparison, again, is not valid because they are on different journeys, existing in vastly different business models (boxing and rugby) but that is the point: Parsons is a brand-new gift sitting at the front door of 62 Lansdowne Road.

The union has not been irresponsible with her. She looks in great physical condition and the coaching provided by Adam Griggs revolves around getting her the ball in space. Failing that, give her a one-on-one to bounce the Wales fullback. Both wingers failed to lay a glove on her. She was only denied a hat-trick by a few inches in the lead up to Wall's late score.

The term “brand ambassador” is already part of Parsons public persona and rightly so, because she is a highly marketable, intelligent athlete.

In these enormously difficult financial times, the IRFU must be given scope to figure out how to make semi-professionalism work before Ireland go to the 2022 World Cup and enter the WXV tournament in 2023.

There is no getting away from it anymore.

It all comes down to managing the athlete’s time. For Ireland to be successful again the players need as much time to recover as they do to work in their jobs and prepare for a Test match.

If these young women are to continue studying and focusing on careers away from the sport, they must not be handicapped in this pursuit by their desire to wear the green jersey. At the very least they should never be out of pocket. They also need access to medical care, during and after their playing days, to make it worth their while to be missing out on opportunities to progress as nurses, doctors, coaches or whatever the long-term plan becomes.

In the meantime, a workable balance needs to be struck between a contracted Sevens panel and the 15s game. That is step four.

If we ever see Parsons pulled from a Six Nations game to play on the Sevens circuit in Las Vegas – as happened to Sene Naoupu, Hannah Tyrrell and Ali Miller in 2017 (the year Ireland hosted a World Cup) – then none of the lessons of the past have sunk in.

But this week the positive narrative, about a gifted teenager from Ballinasloe, shows that the internal training camps of the past year readied the players, mentally and physically, to perform in a Test match.

With no male rugby this weekend, France in Donnybrook will hopefully draw more eyeballs to RTÉ on Saturday, where Niamh Briggs and Fiona Coghlan will educate the new supporters about this squad.

Speaking of the men, Leinster's comeback from 14-0 at Sandy Park stands alongside all the great European days. I'd argue that beating Clermont in Bordeaux and our second-half revival against Northampton in 2011 were better achievements simply because one victory got us into a final while the other won us the Heineken Cup.

To beat Exeter without Caelan Doris, James Ryan and Garry Ringrose forces everyone to lavish praise upon Josh van der Flier, Ryan Baird and Robbie Henshaw.

Van der Flier was immense, as was Rhys Ruddock, yet again. They have been so impressive of late, if an international backrow was being named tomorrow it would be extremely difficult to look past the Leinster flankers and Jack Conan.

Paul O’Connell advised Van der Flier to work on his ball carrying. He has been a shining example of why it does not have to be about size. Timing and acceleration is getting Josh where he wants to go.

The brilliance of Leinster’s defensive strategy was that they made Exeter attack specific areas. This led to turnovers from handling errors. They also managed to isolate the runner for several key shifts in momentum.

I was trying to imagine the coaching that went on last week. Take Luke Cowan-Dickie's tip-on passing against Lyon. It looked unstoppable until Leinster designed a defensive plan to make Cowan-Dickie reproduce his party trick for Dave Ewers and then they attacked that breakdown. Sorry, they felled the 20 stone juggernaut before targeting that breakdown.

When Exeter attempted to adopt their wider patterns, Leinster suckered them into last-option plays before flooding the ruck.

At times it looked like a Greco Roman wrestling royal rumble. Tomás Ó Sé calls it hammering the hammer. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster just offered the English Premiership a blueprint to topple the champions. It takes a lot of courage and trust in each other to pull this off.

The French hammer is bigger still, but Leinster has rediscovered the magic potion of winning knock-out rugby. Leinster won ugly, lovely satisfaction there, and they have the benefit of what was ultimately Exeter’s demise – in knock-out rugby, you have to improve on each performance to progress.

La Rochelle, Jono Gibbes and Ronan O'Gara awaits.

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