In December 2020, almost 100 teenagers turned up at the Rugby Academy Ireland based in Co Kildare for the country's first ever trials for women U20 players. Limited due to Covid restrictions, they still managed. "We'd gauged an interest for a long time," says former international Jenny Murphy and coach at Rugby Academy Ireland, "there's a massive need for it in the country, and there comes a point where you have to actually do something about it".
Caoimhe Morris, the women's co-ordinator at Rugby Academy Ireland, agrees. "Long term development pathways aren't established here, which will hopefully come in soon. The girls coming to us varied: they might have only picked it up, or they'd been playing for years, played interprovincial underage, Ireland U18s. There was a nice mix of people."
The need for U20s is embodied in senior women’s player, Beibhinn Parsons, the winger who became the youngest player to ever don a senior Irish jersey two years ago at 16 years old.
It is an anomaly rather than the norm that a teenager plays, let alone starts, for a senior team; usually lacking the experience and skills needed to represent at the highest level. In addition, the physical demands of senior rugby are heads and shoulders above underage, competing against full-grown adults, compared to teenagers with weight still to add and potentially inches still to grow. “There is a big difference, both in terms of physicality, game awareness and skill,” says Murphy. “It can be extremely daunting, it’s difficult. It creates further obstacles when we want to get as many talented players as possible and to make the pathway to a green jersey as seamless as possible.”
However Parsons, on being plucked from underage rugby to the senior team, has leaped over the inevitable cliff that many U18 players fall from: the jump from underage to senior proving too much. (The drop-off rate for players at this age rivals the players who drop off sport on hitting puberty.)
“The women’s game is definitely improving, and the U18 standard is quite good, but to be honest it’s that jump we’re expecting them to make that’s a bit of an issue” says Morris, “The knowledge of the game and the decision making are a huge jump in senior. It’s a massive leap for girls to make.”
This is not something that faces male players, with their (hugely successful) U20 Irish team (current senior players Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Hugo Keenan were all part of the U20 team who were finalists in the World Cup in 2016). At the moment, there is no U20 women's team, so for the likes of Parsons there is no option for international development apart from the senior team.
The men's team are a compelling example of why the same should be offered to their female counterparts. With an annual World Cup, a Six Nations, and IRFU camps, the men's U20s accumulate the skills that are beneficial if/when representing the senior team at a later date. A possible women's team faces a significant disadvantage due to there being no Women's U20 Six Nations, despite England, Wales, Scotland and France fielding teams in the past.
To the IRFU’s credit, they have maintained focus during the pandemic with their online Q&A sessions for women players, in the form of the Ignite and Spark Sessions, aimed at 16 to 18-year-olds, and older than 18 respectively. While no doubt helpful, these sessions provide information on how to work within the existing system, which still fails to provide for anyone in the U20 bracket.
There is an obvious difference between the actual men’s U20s team and the possibility of a women’s: the former prepare for professionalism, while the latter aim for elite, albeit amateur.
Yet, with women’s professionalism inevitably impacted by the pandemic, the need to invest in squad depth through developing international players becomes more urgent. “The minority and the less popular do tend to suffer in times of economic crisis. The gulf in women’s teams is widening, invest now, or it’s an extremely tough game of catch up,” says Murphy. The senior team of today will take the hit but future teams could come through an U20s system, which may lead to improved performances and allow for eventual professionalism.
The trials give them a chance to develop their skills and abilities
Anthony Eddy, the director of Women's Rugby, said: "The development of the women's game should not be viewed through a direct comparison of the pathways in the men's game. Age is not the core issue, participation numbers, regularity of playing and training and accessibility to quality competition are the real development goals now.
"The women's and men's game are at very different stages of development, and while an U20s team makes sense in the men's game, because it has an international U20s competition at both Six Nations and Junior World Cup, and because there are many more boys participating in rugby, that does not directly translate to the women's game.
“For several years now the IRFU have successfully, and will continue to, develop an U18s women’s programme at both Inter-Provincial and national levels in both the 7s and XVs form of the game.”
As evidenced by the Rugby Academy Ireland trial, there is a demand and an interest for a team of this demographic. “Without it, the opportunity is not there for these girls to be noticed by high level coaches. The trials give them a chance to develop their skills and abilities so that they can make progression to senior rugby a bit smoother,” says Morris.
Although it is difficult to create in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, and diminished revenue, the IRFU still have to develop their women’s side. They may be unable to implement a fully-fledged team, prepped and raring to go for organised tournaments but there can be progress.
Instead of a Women's U20 Six Nations, the IRFU's administrative arm could reach out to other international rugby associations with U20 teams (Canada, England, Wales, France, Belgium for example) to organise friendlies later this year, restrictions depending. Perhaps a preliminary team based on players who attended the Rugby Academy trials, as well as those who represented their provinces most recently, be assembled for a camp at Abbotstown, once allowed.
Now is the time to sow the seeds that will grow into a viable, deep squad for Irish rugby. The IRFU is doing what it can for the U18s and the seniors but now is the time to fill the gap, stop the drop and invest in the growth of Irish women’s international rugby at all levels.