New Connacht president is first woman to head Irish province
Ann Heneghan says she wants to encourage more women to get involved in rugby
‘My wish list for the coming season, aside from a couple of trophies for Connacht, is that we can have a situation where fans can come back and watch live games.’ Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
A Galway solicitor has broken one of Irish rugby’s glass ceilings, becoming the first female to become president of an Irish province. Ann Heneghan was elected Connacht Rugby president at Monday night’s virtual agm, having served as senior vice-president and junior president for the previous two seasons.
The 53-year-old Partry native is well known in Connacht Rugby circles, having fulfilled many administrative roles since cutting her teeth in Ballinrobe RFC, where three of her brothers played. Initially providing weekly rugby reports to the Connaught Telegraph, Heneghan became the first female elected as a Connacht branch delegate some 30 years ago. Secretary to the Connacht Junior squad, a member and subsequent chairman of the disciplinary committee, and the first chairperson of the Connacht Rugby Supporters’ Club are all roles in which Heneghan has excelled.
Expressing her delight that Connacht has become the first province to elect a female president, she says it is a great honour, but one that has required perseverance.
We are lucky here in Connacht because it is a real family in terms of its supporters
“It is important for girls who may be reticent about getting involved in rugby, seeing it as a male-orientated sport, to see it can be done, and it is possible to get to higher levels.
“It wasn’t easy to break into rugby in the first place. Thirty years ago there was little women’s involvement in the sport as a whole. There were very few women’s rugby teams – women were mainly involved in the kitchen making soup and sandwiches, and washing dishes. It was a case of persevering. Once people realise you know what you are talking about in rugby terms, you get respect, but respect has to be earned.
“Positive discrimination is all very well, but you have to earn a role, and I would like to think I have paid my dues and earned this position.”
A self-employed solicitor with negotiating and public speaking skills and – importantly – “a rugby fan”, Heneghan is a natural fit for the leadership role, and is also a judicial officer with World Rugby. But this season brings different challenges, not least getting players and fans back to the Sportsground.
“Just the fact that rugby is back is a huge positive, but it would be great to be watching live games again. We are lucky here in Connacht because it is a real family in terms of its supporters. As a smaller province, the public has more access to coaches, players and management, everyone is more involved in Connacht. But it is a challenge when everything is remote, keeping fans involved and supporting the team is important.”
While staff take care of the professional game, Heneghan says there are growing challenges for the domestic game.
“The domestic game relies on volunteers, and often the same people are involved for many years. I know clubs struggle with that and it can be difficult to retain and develop new volunteers to take important roles in a club. It is a huge concern for all clubs throughout the country.”
The game may well include more women, she says.
“I don’t want to be a figurehead, the token female who became head of Connacht Rugby. I want to take a more active role and hopefully encourage more women to be involved.
“Over the last three years I have got to know the presidents of the other provinces, and Leinster followed Connacht’s example and have a woman who is the senior vice-president this year. Hopefully the other provinces will also follow suit, again not tokenism, but people who are actually involved and deserving of roles so more women can see a way forward.”
Despite the unknowns ahead, Heneghan says the most important hope is that rugby can continue to be played safely.
“My wish list for the coming season, aside from a couple of trophies for Connacht, is that we can have a situation where fans can come back and watch live games, but safety, for both the supporters and the public.”