Fans says future of women’s rugby is bright as they bask in sunshine
Fan zone buzzing as it waits to see if Ireland team will answer the call against Australia
The Ireland team in a huddle before the World Cup pool C game against Australia at UCD Bowl. Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The players from Hong Kong and Canada made their way from a building on one side of a busy road on the University College Dublin campus, over a zebra crossing and down a short path into the stadium ahead of the second half of their opening women’s rugby World Cup match.
While the distance they travelled was short – maybe 50 or 60 paces – it could scarcely have been a clearer reflection of the yawning chasm that separates men’s and women’s rugby in 2017.
The very notion that any men pulling on their country’s jersey and lining out to play at the most senior level at a World Cup would have to cross a busy road to get from their changing rooms to a stadium is just absurd.
But so it is for women. While the level of respect afforded to elite rugby players appears to differ dramatically depending on their gender, most people who were in the UCD sports campus on Wednesday evening for the first round of pool games in the World Cup were in agreement that, at the very least, baby steps were being taken to close the gap.
Teresa Watchhorn travelled from Carlow to watch Ireland’s first game against Australia, and as she lounged in the fan zone in gloriously warm sunshine ahead of kick-off was upbeat about the future of the game at all levels in this country.
“We have seen a huge surge in interest in the game in Carlow in recent years, particularly in the underage game. But to be honest I think a big breakthrough is still some way away. If only there was a little bit more investment in the game here, I think that would make a big difference.
“Our taxi driver on the way here today had absolutely no idea the World Cup was even on, and that is kind of depressing. Maybe we need a little bit more success or maybe the game needs more exposure or maybe it needs more support in the media. I really don’t know.”
Valerie Timmons plays rugby for Carlow, and, despite the fact that she was wearing an All Blacks jersey, was definitely cheering on the women in green. “The sun is out and everyone is enjoying themselves. I think it’s brilliant here,” she said.
“I definitely reckon rugby in Ireland is on an upward curve, and I think we have a really good chance of getting into the semi-finals. I don’t know if anyone can beat the All Blacks or the English – they are playing at a professional level and I don’t know how anyone can compete with that.”
Although she was sitting on the grass in the fan zone, she was one of the 3,000 people in possession of a ticket to see Ireland’s opener.
“I think the venue is a little bit too small,” said Timmons. “The amount of people I’ve spoken to who couldn’t get tickets. I think that’s a pity. Surely they could have played the games in one of the bigger rugby stadiums near here? They are all lying empty right now.”
Jonathan Kelly from Wexford was one of those unable to secure a ticket for Ireland’s game. “The fan zone is fantastic, and there is a great buzz about the place. I couldn’t get a ticket and the venue does seem small which is a shame – although it might give the games more atmosphere. And the fan zone is still great and I’d rather be watching the match here than at home.”
He said the progress that has been made in women’s rugby has been dramatic. “Even 10 years ago it was unheard of in Ireland – and look at us now. Maybe this competition will be seen as a springboard for future success.”
As kick-off approached fans streamed out of the fan zone towards the compact stadium. Some passed the Australian team, who were heading along a footpath to a patch of grass where they could warm up.
Just inside the turnstiles two women were in earnest conversation with one of the stewards.
They were Siobhan Stapleton and Iris Grant. The former is the mother of Nora Stapleton, who was getting ready to line out for Ireland, the latter her grandmother.*
The reason for the earnest conversation quickly became clear. Laura’s sister had bought tickets for the wrong venue – the stadium where Canada were mercilessly walloping Hong Kong – and she couldn’t get in to see the Ireland match.
To his credit, the steward listened to the Stapleton clan’s pleas and went off to see what he could do.
“My stomach is heaving,” said Siobhan. “Laura only really took up rugby when she came to UCD. She started first with tag rugby, as a hobby, and it went from there. I’m very nervous now,” she added, before wandering off in search of a ticket for her other daughter.
“It is absolutely wonderful,” said Iris Grant. “She has been preparing for this for so many years. And to have it happen in Ireland is just fantastic for her. But it is also great for Irish women’s rugby. More needs to be done to support it. It needs to be in more schools, and it needs to be on the television more.”
As Ireland and Australia finished their warm up routines, Siobhan Stapleton came rushing up the steps to her seat, her non-rugby playing daughter following closely behind her. “She got in,” she said with some relief. “Her boyfriend didn’t though. He’s had to wait outside.”
Then the teams lined out. The fans belted out Ireland’s Call, and the girls in green got ready to answer.
And answer they did, beating Australia by 19 points to 17.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Siobhan Stapleton was the mother of Laura Stapleton. She is the mother of Nora Stapleton.