Players asked not to comment over facilities at women’s interpros in Donnybrook

Videos show temporary tents set up beside bins with reports of rats around the area

A general view of action during the Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial match between Connacht and Ulster at Energia Park in Donnybrook. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

A general view of action during the Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial match between Connacht and Ulster at Energia Park in Donnybrook. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

 

On Sunday last, the Connacht women’s rugby team were under a gazebo, getting ready for their third-place playoff against Ulster in the Vodafone Interpro Championships. A player surveyed the scene with her phone, “rats running around at the changing tent for an interpro game[...] not good enough” captioned alongside the video. Media brands, radio stations, sponsors were among those tagged in the video by the player, aiming to get the word out, using the platform available to her to be heard.

The video prompted a range of reactions, all vying to be heard online: rage, shock, disappointment, shame, annoyance.

Although the video offered a glance into what had happened, there were still questions to be answered, and on Sunday morning, players in Leinster, Connacht and Ulster were all willing to talk on record about it. Players were understandably annoyed, both at what had happened, and what it had done: taken away from an otherwise successful championship, particularly for Munster, made the spectacle the story.

Interviews were arranged, with players ready, willing and able to speak about the experience, grateful that they were being listened to, that people cared enough to hear them out, grateful that the standards had been raised enough that people were outraged at the treatment.

But, by Sunday afternoon, the tone changed: the texts came in, first to the team group chats from captains, telling players to pass on radio or media interviews, instead direct them on to Connacht/Leinster/Munster/Ulster Rugby, and then onwards “We’ve just been asked not to comment[...] Appreciate the support though!”

While players can use their own social media platforms to speak up, the power invariably lies with the sporting bodies.The joint statement, released by the IRFU and Leinster rugby was evidently to be the final word on the matter.

Irish Rugby and Leinster Rugby said [they] would like to apologise to players, management and representatives of @connachtrugby and @UlsterRugby and are sorry for the inconvenience caused by an unacceptable error in relation to the positioning of temporary changing facilities.

“Due to current government guidelines, changing facilities are not available for amateur rugby teams. These temporary facilities should have been set up in a more appropriate area. Both ourselves and @IrishRugby are extremely sorry for the inconvenience to the teams and the upset this unacceptable error has caused.”

The IRFU have been approached for comment for this article. It had been the players who had voiced the issue, who had brought the matter to light, who spoke up but it was now the players who were – reluctantly – silent, wary of the repercussions.

Connacht’s Catherine Martin and Ashleigh Orchard of Ulster during the match. Photo: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho
Connacht’s Catherine Martin and Ashleigh Orchard of Ulster during the match. Photo: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

There was also a notable silence among the teams’ male counterparts. Mere weeks ago, the Connacht women’s jerseys were unveiled alongside the men’s, in a show of support and equality for both sides, literally standing together as one team. However, now when support, outrage and disapproval were required there was radio silence.

A Connacht player, who was initially willing to be named but now wishes to remain anonymous, was “surprised and disappointed” to see the set up, where the team left their bags, put on boots, went out to the main pitch, did the warm-up and came back and changed out of training tops into the jerseys. There was also the fear of property safety in the gazebos. They also changed out of the kits after the game and ate their post match meals there.

“We understand that due to the current Covid-19 situation the use of dressingrooms is not possible, but the setting of the marquee changing areas was not in line with what we in Connacht had experienced in our previous two interpro games,” she says.

“Mostly I think it affected my focus, and our focus as a team. All athletes know how important your mental preparation before a game is, and this definitely negatively impacted that,” she continues.

“Playing for Connacht means an awful lot to me, It’s an immense honour to wear the jersey. The level of respect for women’s rugby in the province is immense and we as players can feel that within Connacht rugby. None of what happened on Saturday was due to the fault of Connacht rugby, when housed in the Sportsground for our first interpro clash against Leinster the facilities were completely fine. This was organised by the IRFU, Leinster Rugby and officials at Energia Park.”

Part of the shock was the progress that had been made. The interpros took place in the weeks leading up to the Rugby World Cup qualifiers and under the umbrella of the IRFU’s #nothinglikeit campaign, which aimed to show the uniqueness of women’s rugby: “in a world full of differences, it teaches you that you belong. For a life’s worth of lessons, there’s Nothing Like It,” states the IRFU website proudly.

“So much work has gone on behind the scenes this year to have the women’s interpro games televised, bring in more sponsorship and to increase exposure of women’s rugby. And this is why this particular issue is so disappointing; as a result of all that hard work, this kind of treatment is not what we have come to expect of women’s rugby in Ireland.

“Letting it go unnoticed would be unfair not only to us as players but to our management, all involved in Connacht and Ulster rugby and everyone who has worked to get women’s rugby in Ireland to where it is now,” the player says.

Apologies are all well and good, but what has to happen now is “that this, or nothing like this happens again. That the increased exposure of women’s rugby does not go to waste, and that we continue to see an improvement in facilities and a truly consistent level of respect,” she says.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For every positive step in women’s sports, there is a step back. While supporters and players alike may be left with more questions for the IRFU than answers – Would this have been the same for the men’s under20s? Who chose that setting? What was the alternative? – there is one thing we can all agree on: in terms of the treatment and the progress to be made in women’s rugby there truly is #nothinglikeit.

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