The IRFU’s declared intention to implement all 30 recommendations in the independent review into Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in New Zealand this year has been welcomed by the players’ representatives as “a welcome first step on a journey towards a new era for Irish women’s rugby, but it is a vitally important one.”
The Union will appoint a new head of women's performance and pathways, and will increase its investment from "circa €3 million" annually to "circa €4 million", while the IRFU chief executive Kevin Potts has apologised for previous failings.
In addition, although not a recommendation, the IRFU have appointed a full-time women's XVs national team programme manager, namely Gemma Crowley, in time for the forthcoming TikTok Women's Six Nations (Ireland host Wales in three weeks' time at the RDS).
The Cork native was manager of the Ireland team that won a Grand Slam during the 2012 Women’s Six Nations Championship and finished fourth at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup in France, and served as team operations manager for the British & Irish Lions in South Africa last year.
Admitting that the IRFU fell short in their 2018 Strategic Plan after the team’s failure to progress from the pool stages of the World Cup on home soil, Potts said the recommendations of the independent review - conducted by Amanda Bennett, of FairPlay Ltd - would provide the basis to re-ignite the long-term development of women’s rugby in Ireland.
“For me, this was, first and foremost, about listening to the player group and understanding their concerns. It was also important to ensure that the players had faith in the process and in our desire to work collaboratively. I have already had several meetings with representatives of the player group and have formally apologised to them on behalf of the IRFU.”
Although the union declared its intention last December to break with practice by publishing the report, as predicted legal advice and the need to protect confidentiality prevented them from doing so.
Potts also maintained that the departure of the IRFU's director of women's and sevens rugby, Anthony Eddy, on Thursday were "not linked at all."
Bennett’s recommendations identified player development, selection, consultation and engagement with players, the appointment of a full-time assistant coach, performance coach and performance analyst, a dedicated nutritionist, attention on the fitness and conditioning of front five players and the introduction of “hybrid or retainer” contracts for women’s XVs players.
Tellingly, three of the five performance-related recommendations for the women’s XVs team made reference to the sevens, highlighting the increased focus in the latter to the detriment of the former.
Potts admitted: “One of the asks of our new head of women’s performance and pathways will be to examine that whole interaction between our sevens and XVs squads and to make recommendations up through the national professional game board and to the IRFU as to how that will be managed in the future. There is certainly a perception there that it needs clarity.”
Fiona Steed, a member of the IRFU union committee & chair of IRFU women's sub committee, concurred. "It's not just us. Every country is struggling with this."
Steed also admitted “there may well be a bit of pain” prior to longer-term gain. “To be absolutely brutal, the gap is there between England and France and the rest of the world at the moment.
“We need to be top three in the Six Nations. I see that as achievable. And then get into the top tier to compete consistently against the best in the world until we become the best in the world.”
Bennett agreed that the top three in the Six Nations is “an excellent milestone to have but it’s not going to be a straight line.”
Steed also said that player contracts “can’t be a knee-jerk reaction. It can’t be handing out contracts to ten or 30 players. It needs to be what suits us.”
Potts re-iterated that the ongoing wider review into the the strategic direction of the women’s game in Ireland is “of the highest priority for the IRFU.”
But Bennett admitted that to protect anonymity this second report might also be restricted to publishing recommendations.
“I would be hesitant about publishing much more and certainly stating that at this stage because, inevitably, there will be a knock-on effect for people thinking ‘do I want to be involved in that and what will happen with my comments etc?’
“So I don’t think we should pre-empt it but I would say we will probably apply the same principles.”
Five key recommendations:
Replace the 2019 selection criteria with a clear and coherent selection policy that reflects union XVs and sevens priorities. Ensure it is created in consultation with performance staff and players, includes fair and consistent communication of decisions, is monitored for adherence and is effectively communicated.
Create a distinct head of women’s performance (or similar) role that has strategic responsibility solely for women’s XVs, women’s sevens and the women’s performance pathway.
Appoint a full-time head coach solely for women’s XVs rugby and a full-time assistant coach solely for women’s XVs rugby.
Appoint a full-time athletic performance coach for women’s XVs rugby
Consider the introduction of hybrid or retainer contracts for XV players to manage physical, emotional, time and other pressures.