Lynne Cantwell’s move is South Africa’s gain and IRFU’s loss

Women’s rugby: The parable of a prophet not being accepted in their hometown is apposite

All too briefly The Irish Times had Lynne Cantwell as a columnist in 2014, when she was still one of the best centres in the world.

In sports writing, if you get lucky, there's an occasional window into a beautiful mind. Rare spirits like Brian Kerr, Nicky English and Gordon D'Arcy. The gig is simple enough. Listen, put their thoughts on the page and make it readable. The problem with Lynne was she possessed a better grasp of the English language than her ghost writer.

The difference between Cantwell's wisdom and a Republic of Ireland manager or a prince of Tipperary hurlers or Leinster's most enduring servant is nothing at all.

Their otherness is the same.


The paper lost her nuanced opinion due to a cheeky picture of the Ireland team decked out in county jerseys with St George's Red Cross as backdrop. It was snapped in the Twickenham tunnel straight after a test match. The IRFU refused to hand over a high-res version as the beaming women were promoting the sponsors of county teams. For example, "Hospice" on Larissa Muldoon's Donegal shirt and "Arnotts" on Cantwell's sky blue.

We published the grainy image instead.

Point is all the silly bickering was a distraction to Cantwell who, very politely, decided to focus on Ireland winning the World Cup that summer. They came fourth. We believe they would have come third if she had not been concussed in the semi-final defeat to a mighty English side spearheaded by Emily Scarratt.

Since her retirement after that special tournament, when number 13's combative display had plenty to do with victory over New Zealand, the IRFU has criminally neglected to do whatever was necessary to keep her inside the tent.

Sport Ireland got the memo, and Cantwell retains a seat on its board despite a new role overseeing women's rugby in South Africa.

Highly regarded

This appointment reinforces the parable of a prophet never being accepted in their hometown. That Ireland’s most capped female (86) has been “lured” to the southern hemisphere in a “departmental rejigging” shows how highly regarded Cantwell is in rugby circles.

Word gets around. Just listen to Rassie Erasmus: “We had done as much as we knew but we realised we lacked expertise and experience in women’s high-performance area. We refocused our approach and we’re very glad and excited to be able to bring someone with Lynne’s experience and skills into the South African environment.”

That alone feels like a kick in the teeth for anyone who truly cares about the women's game on this island. There is more. SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux: "If we're serious about women's rugby – and we are – we had to make a serious appointment, and we have."

Until now, the Springboks had let the women’s game rot. There were bigger issues, like apartheid and quotas. The boys always took precedence. That will never change but at least the penny has dropped.

The Springbok hierarchy are already including her in strategic meetings alongside Erasmus and general manager Charles Wessels

Recruiting Cantwell is a proactive step, rather than the reactive feet-dragging by the men overseeing Irish women’s rugby since one of them laughed in Fiona Coghlan’s face at her suggestion, in 2012, that taking Sevens players from the 15s squad mid-Six Nations could damage title aspirations. The guffaw was spat out after Coghlan had the temerity to mention two little words: “grand slam.”

The Sevens trick was repeated in 2017 before the 2018 refusal to tour Australia alongside the men – on the Aussies' dollar – signalled the lowest ebb since that overnight train to Pau.


Globally, there is plenty of arm-twisting to bring rugby out of the Jurassic era. Roux referenced a “directive from World Rugby” before adding that the appointment of Cantwell was “a South African national imperative”.

There are deeper institutional issues she will encounter when her young family relocates from London to Cape Town, but the opportunity to work alongside the former Munster director of rugby feels like the chance of a lifetime. The Springbok hierarchy are already including her in strategic meetings alongside Erasmus and general manager Charles Wessels.

Imagine a similar scenario in Dublin that has Cantwell sponging up the endless knowledge David Nucifora and Anthony Eddy have compiled over the years.

Wake up, you are dreaming.

Bringing Cantwell into the Irish fold would require Eddy splitting what always seemed an impossible double brief directing Sevens and women’s rugby.

“At SA Rugby,” said Cantwell, “we are committed to progress but recognise the work that needs to be done to repair and rebuild in order to move forward.”

What makes this fantastic opportunity for the 39-year-old so depressing is she is not uttering those words from her new office on Lansdowne road. It is unlikely that the IRFU’s Australian leadership lost any sleep or sun when the news filtered through.