Joanne O'Riordan: IRFU face challenges over unmet women’s rugby targets

Interview: Union bosses say focus on grass roots and game’s development key

It’s been an absolute rollercoaster with the IRFU and women’s rugby over the last few years. From an outsider’s perspective, the high-performance targets were not met and funding has been decreasing steadily since 2017 when Ireland hosted the Women’s Rugby World Cup. Two of the IRFU’s head of development officers, Amanda Greensmith and Colin McEntee, know now is the time to get the ball rolling in a positive direction.

So, let’s start at the clubs at grass roots. How are things working down there?

According to Greensmith, former development officer with Munster Rugby and ex-international, the beauty of women’s sport is that it’s so new, you can set a precedent with a brand new blueprint.

“There has been more interest and more visibility, I think it’s going to generate more, you know, younger girls and women wanting to take up the game, and I suppose we’re seeing a mix; we still see clubs who have that underage structure all the way up into an adult side. And then we’ll see some clubs that have just flipped a little bit. Maybe they start with the adult side and then bring through the underage after.

“Over the years, I think we’ve given clubs the opportunity to try and build it from the ground up through different programmes. Try and build that grassroots involvement into the adult section in the club, and try and give them a lifelong sustainable experience,” explains Greensmith over Zoom.

Opportunity

I propose my poor unsuspecting five-year-old niece as the next Beibhinn Parsons and how I might potentially get this ball rolling. According to the Munster website, there are currently two leagues running in Munster for age-grade girls rugby – one at under-15s and one at under-18s. Add to that designated blitz days for under-13s. Greensmith brings me through the pathway for said unsuspecting niece.

“I suppose initially they will start with the minis, that will start mixed, but what we are seeing kind of happening now is that clubs are putting together girls-only sections, at a mini level even now. We’re not saying that has to happen for clubs. You know, there is an opportunity there to be mixed. Or there’s an opportunity, if the numbers allow it, to be girls-only under-10s or under-12s as they move up. They don’t split until under-13. And from that age, then we’d say at age-grade, we’d go into 14, 16 and 18.”

Greensmith acknowledges that there is an incredible gap from 18 to adult level. While currently looking into options to see what could best cater for that gap between 18 to adult level, the only viable option is through a college programme. The IRFU, alongside Greensmith and McEntee, are working on this initiative for these structures to improve.

One interesting point is how sevens rugby is seen as the introductory into 15s rugby throughout these development programmes. Why? It allows schools to introduce the game nicely to the students. There isn’t a need for huge numbers, there’s lots of space, it’s an exciting format. There’s also the added bonus of it being an Olympic sport and having an incredible World Series.

So, if you’re developing a good sevens programme, does that accidentally take away from your 15s? According to Greensmith, there are pros and cons, skills are transferable, there is currently a crossover and they’re currently looking into a 15s programme.

Overall, the IRFU are looking for a complete rugby package for our future stars. The man overlooking all of rugby’s development is McEntee. He brings 20-plus years of experience and explains the bigger picture.

“When we look at sustainability, we really challenge ourselves on the environment. Are we creating a positive environment for our members to come into? We sort of sometimes look at a rugby offering or a club as like a restaurant. So if you’re a young group of girls coming into a restaurant, the menu is good. So the choice that you go for is exactly what you want, but the environment and the experience are good, and you feel good. Afterwards, you’re going to tell your friends and people will come back to the door. But there are learnings on the way and it’s not nice; it’s not easy in this evolution. But I do think with the clubs that have really embraced a full participation programme, they’re the clubs that are striving.”

To measure that inclusivity, the IRFU tend not to get bogged down with figures and numbers when measuring the success of inclusivity. In fact, McEntee explains each club goes through a health check.

“We do that every year with every club. So we ask questions: how are you working for inclusivity? What exactly are your numbers? What is your strategic plan? It’s not asking questions to find problems or to catch people out. It’s to ask the right questions and see how can we support and help.”

If a question is raised about inclusivity, is there a person in charge who deals with questions, complaints and queries? And how is trust built within all parties in a club?

“It’s very much within the club, and on the governance and the values of the club, I’d hear of really inclusive meetings within a club, and it’s all about planning, to have a well-planned flow of teams and how they evolve at every level. It’s making sure everyone is very clear. And, everyone buys into that, and again, these things cost nothing. It’s people sitting around and saying, right, this is our, this is our plan, this is our fixture list. And this is where you have to draw the lines and to make sure that everyone is getting that access.”

Strong message

Structures within the IRFU are queried all the time. Some wonder why the All-Ireland League doesn’t have a seat at the table. The director of women’s rugby and the national women’s development manager do not sit on the IRFU women’s committee. However, the subcommittee of women’s rugby reports to the main IRFU committee. McEntee reports to the CEO, Philip Browne, the IRFU management committee and the IRFU rugby committee, which features input from all four provinces, heads of the sub-committees (a list that includes the women’s committee, the spirit committee, an age grade committee, a minis committee).

Greensmith finishes on a strong message in this interview. She wants to ensure connectivity between clubs and those in charge, that members are being catered for correctly and that everyone is working to attain an inclusive club status.

With the chaos over the last few weekends, all eyes will be on the end-of-year review. Greensmith and McEntee know all eyes will be on the IRFU, who once again are squirming when facing questions about women’s sport. If Greensmith and McEntee have their way, this all begins with grass roots and development. When we see those results is another question that’s impossible to answer, but deep down, the IRFU and those within rugby understand there’s a mountain to climb. Who’s willing to climb it should bring more clarity in the future.