For 62 current and former players to write to the Government expressing their loss of trust and faith in the IRFU is quite an extraordinary development.
The detailed letter is a damning indictment of the Union’s governance of Irish women’s rugby over a sustained period. That the 62 should turn directly to the Government not only conveys their lack of faith in the Union’s abilities to oversee inquiries into ongoing failures, it is also profoundly embarrassing for the IRFU.
In response though, the Union have dug their heels in, saying it “refutes the overall tenor of the document which questions the IRFU’s commitment to, and leadership of, the women’s game in Ireland.”
Yet the letter is all the more damning given high profile and legendary figures such as Fiona Coughlan, Lynne Cantwell and recently retired captain Ciara Griffin are signatures alongside current internationals such as Eimear Considine, Sene Naoupu, Linda Djougang and Cliodhna Moloney.
They describe themselves as “a deeply discouraged group of current and former Irish women’s rugby players” who have “sadly lost all trust and confidence in the IRFU and its leadership after historic failings.
“Ultimately recent events simply reflect multiple cycles of substandard commitment from the union, inequitable and untrustworthy leadership, a lack of transparency in the governance and operation of the women’s game…and an overall total lack of ambition about what it could achieve.”
Although the letter also references the same problems persisting “for decades”, the signatures note the decline of the Irish Women’s team coincided with the appointment of IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora and Anthony Eddy, the Director of both Womens and 7s rugby, in 2014.
In response to the “bitter disappointment” of finishing eighth in their home World Cup in 2017, the letter notes “the IRFU produced an action plan for the game with a number of high level targets. However we find ourselves at the end of 2021 with those plans in disarray and with a large majority of those targets missed.”
This represented “significant failure.”
The IRFU cannot dispute this, nor does their statement do so, and as much as anything the letter is a plea for help to the Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers TD and Minister for Sport Catherine Martin TD.
Specifically, they urge the Government to ensure that two ongoing reviews into the women’s game are conducted adequately. One is into the failure to qualify for the World Cup, the findings of which are due this month. The second is a report into the implementation of the current ‘Women in Rugby Action Plan’.
The letter states the range of stakeholders asked to take part in previous reviews “have not always reliably represented the game well enough to capture accurate, independent data and insight - neither do all of us feel fully confident that the information submitted has been factual and designed to act in the best interest of the women’s game.”
Although the 62 acknowledge the “well-qualified independent leads” running these reviews, “we have no faith that in the end that these will do anything significantly different to all those which have gone before.”
Intriguingly, they add: “A large group of current players, including some who have recently retired, have collectively submitted a more detailed overview for the World Cup Qualifier review, which we are happy to privately share with you.”
As with IRFU reviews at the end of World Cup cycles, it is Union policy to not make them public, so as to protect their integrity, but rather to selectively reveal key findings.
But who selects the key findings? The IRFU.
This plea to the Government comes on top of a particularly undistinguished year for the IRFU’s governance of women’s rugby; from Connacht players being forced to change in horrific outdoor conditions at Donnybrook to the failure in the World Cup qualifying tournament in Parma.
This was compounded by Eddy seemingly, and self-servingly, laying the blame for the latter entirely at the feet of the players while absolving the IRFU.
That, coupled with the reviews not being made public, was probably the final straw.
Heretofore, whereas the women’s football team threatened strike action in response to being treated as “fifth-class citizens, the dirt on the FAI’s shoe”, this scale of embarrassment has rarely been heaped upon the Union.
The IRFU prides itself on their good standing with the Government, who provided the Union with a critically important grant of €18m in 2020.
By an odd co-incidence, the IRFU on Monday thanked the Government, and Sport Ireland, after it was confirmed that €18 million would be allocated to rugby from the Government’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Sport.
All of which makes their seemingly outraged response a little surprising.
“The responsible approach would be to allow these reviews progress and conclude their work independently, without attempts to influence their work through outside interference,” states the Union.
The IRFU reasserted the independence of the review “into what was for all in Irish Rugby, players, team management, IRFU committee and executives, the hugely disappointing failure of our women’s senior international team to qualify for the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2023.”
Alas, few in the women’s game believe the disappointment is truly shared by the IRFU committee and executives, where they feel friendless, and have done for years.
The IRFU statement also cites detailed playing numbers at all levels and concludes: “These are not seen as an end but rather strong foundations from which to build.”
At least 62 current and former players clearly believe the IRFU are incapable of building upon these foundations. This looks like war.