Ian Madigan says women’s game has huge potential for expansion

Ulster outhalf’s experience at Bristol showed him what equity of treatment looks like

Sporting bodies, athletes, journalists, fans, even trolls seem to be talking about women’s sports, how they’re faring, how they’re flailing, how they’re facing Covid.

Rugby, in particular, has been a recurring topic since the pandemic began. Last year's Six Nations was prematurely ended; the current one's viability was up for debate and then eventually shortened to three games instead of five.

The gap between professionals and amateurs is widening; the postponement of the World Cup qualifiers while the Lions tour proceeds and the men’s Six Nations remains a steadfast part of the rugby calendar. Yet, within that discussion, the voice of male counterparts has been notably quiet.

Ulster flyhalf Ian Madigan has been a long-time supporter of the women's game, having followed his sister Louise – five years his junior – throughout her sporting life, whether that be rugby, hockey or his cousins playing Gaelic football, some for Dublin underage. He has naturally noticed the differences in their treatment throughout his own career.

“I’ve always been passionate about the women’s game. Yeah, I would have been very aware when I was going through school that the opportunities I had weren’t there for women, and it didn’t sit well with me.

“It’s very difficult for the amateur players travelling in Covid,” acknowledges Madigan.

“It’s been an unusual year in that sense for women’s rugby, but I don’t like using Covid as an excuse. It’s important that we’re looking at the bigger picture.”

The building momentum of women’s rugby, and this specific Irish team, has had more players noticing. Most of this public support comes from retired players, who cite lack of awareness during their professional careers as reason for the belated support.

They are late, but welcome, additions to the bandwagon of women interested who’ve been on board for years. For some, the difference between the men’s and women’s games sunk in once they had children, when the discrepancies between the game they grew up playing and the game their daughters would play became glaringly obvious.

Madigan knows that “there isn’t any malice in it, it’s just lack of awareness but the more players [both current and retired] we see supporting it is gonna have an impact. Any awareness that can be raised is welcome. It’s small steps, getting current players tweeting about games, teams, events, that influences the wider public. It doesn’t happen overnight, but there are easy wins that can be made now, which I’d love to see implemented.”

Madigan speaks from experience, and although he’d always been passionate about the women’s game, it was his time at Bristol that showed him what equity/fairness/equality looked like in reality.

Offering help

“Bristol is unique in the sense that it’s all under the one roof. It’s Bristol Bears basketball, soccer, rugby, and within that you’ve got women’s soccer, basketball, rugby. It’s all under the same ownership so something they do really well is share the resources.

“For example, with rugby, we would have gone down in a systematic way for individual coaching, like kicking with kickers, scrumhalf would have gone down and do passing with the scrumhalves. It’s something that the players really enjoyed . . . It’s very satisfying, very satisfying to do.

In Bristol, the players engaged with each other, sometimes offering help, sharing tactics, sitting in on meetings, viewing training sessions.

"We would have had them come to our games, we'd stay around and watch them, we'd all share feedback there. I just think and then, I suppose I've come to know Eimear Considine on the House of Rugby podcast, hearing, you know, about the women's game in Ireland. it's not about drastic change, it's not like you're suddenly going to wake up tomorrow and that it's going to be equal pay.

“The reality is that’s not going to happen, but what can definitely happen is baby steps, where we see the provincial men’s teams helping out the provincial women’s teams, just more cross-pollination between the men’s and women’s game. That first step I’d like to see. It’s important to note that the women aren’t asking for a lot but where small differences can be made would make a huge difference.”

Big differences hinge on small decisions. Ireland's first Six Nations game against Wales this year was scheduled at a time that clashed with Leinster.

“Would we have had more people tuning in had one of the games been scheduled at a different time?” asks Madigan.

“I think we certainly would have. And with the game, and how it’s gone in the last five to 10 years, they’re great games to watch, you only need people to watch one or two games to be supporters.”

It’s, as Madigan has said, about the cross-pollination, the understanding that both a men’s and a women’s side shouldn’t have to compete with each other within their own club, province, country.

Whole thing

When the team, whether it be men’s, women’s, underage, or even a different sport wins, they all win, creating mutually beneficial relationships rather than forcing them to compete against those that wear the same jersey as them.

“The positive experience I had in Bristol just showed how things could be. Everything from how the social media accounts are run to how the players know what’s going on, it’s also soccer, basketball, it’s the whole thing. The different players from the different sports supporting the team, feels like you’re part of something special.

“There’s no reason why the provincial teams can’t have that. It’s what I’d love to see when the restrictions are lifted; that we see the Ulster players helping out the women’s team, if that happens at a provincial level, then national, that’d be great.”