The national women’s rugby team are in a tough spot today, and not just because they face a must-see match against Italy to stay alive in next year’s World Cup qualifiers.
hey are also on the back foot more generally because the team’s profile has fallen off a cliff since the glory days of 2013-15. Last Monday, they played their first match in a four-team round robin, the winners of which will be granted automatic passage to the World Cup, to be held in New Zealand in October and November 2022.
It’s probably safe to say that more people knew about last Monday’s game after it was played, rather than before. Because Ireland was shocked by Spain, beaten 8-7 in a match that it largely dominated, according to information, and in which it wasted several scoring opportunities. The fourth team in the tournament is Scotland. They were beaten by Italy on Monday. The tournament takes place in Parma: Italy has a home advantage, as well as momentum, ahead of the clash with Ireland today. Spain face Scotland later tonight. The final phase of the matches will be played next Saturday. The group finalist will have a lifeline, a chance to travel to New Zealand via a final qualifying tournament, the dates and location of which are yet to be determined.
When minority sports in this country get a chance to shine, the fun is usually short-lived. The pattern reliably repeats itself at almost every Olympics, for example. Amateur boxing is familiar with this cycle of ascent and descent. Heroes who return with their medals are celebrated at the airport, on the streets and on talk shows. Then the dark waits another four years, more or less.
Even the national championships – the preliminaries of which began this weekend at the National Boxing Stadium – are deserted by everyone except the sport’s enthusiasts. The Irish women’s hockey team went mainstream for a few weeks in August 2018 when they reached their sport’s World Cup final. When their moment in the sun passed, the audience moved on.
It’s a crowded market. This probably happens in all countries. There is no point in complaining about it. Sport is made for moving trains which can be put on and off at any time during the journey.
Still, one would have hoped that the triumphs of the Ireland women’s rugby team in the first half of the last decade could have had more lasting traction. Eight years ago, they were crowned with this inspiring Grand Slam campaign at the 2013 Six Nations. The following year they beat New Zealand at the World Cup. And in 2015, they won another Six Nations Championship. These small-group performances were meant to cement for women’s rugby the parity of esteem that previous generations of female players lacked, sometimes in the face of hostility from the IRFU. old regime.
And even if a certain slippage was expected when this golden generation broke up, the slip towards their current situation still seems a little dramatic. Clearly, Ireland’s dismal campaign as the host nation of the 2017 Women’s World Cup was in itself a massive anti-climax. This paved the way for the predicament they find themselves in today. For the past few years, they have been stagnant at best, caught in a sort of waiting between transition and progress.
But at least the legacy of these heroics from the past decade was meant to be secure, in terms of legitimacy, funding, and the growth of women’s play in Ireland. The universal presumption was that the penny had fallen, even among the most recalcitrant figures on IRFU committees. The general impression was that the only way was to go up. And in the long run, it hopefully still is.
So perhaps one shouldn’t read too much of the embarrassing situation that prevailed at Energia Park in Donnybrook last Saturday. The site hosted the final round of the Interprovincial Games. Connacht would play Ulster followed by Leinster against Munster. While it is not a competition that makes the hearts of the rugby public even beat faster, its status has improved considerably thanks to the acquisition of a sponsor in Vodafone and the live television coverage of the matches by TG4. Both of these developments were positive indicators of a general improvement in the position of sport.
Then it turned out that the Connacht and Ulster teams had to move in the open behind the pitch, on a vacant lot where wheelie bins are stored and where rodents were apparently also present. One of the players posted footage of the scene on social media and the rest were red embarrassment for Leinster rugby and IRFU. Profuse apologies and remorseful explanations were duly offered by both organizations over the following days. There were solemn promises that this would never happen again.
IRFU spokesperson says players had no choice but to change outside because the pandemic guidelines did not allow the use of changing rooms. The spokesperson told the Independent Irish Last week, for the second round of the Interpro Series on September 4, “Leinster’s operations team identified an area behind the Old Wesley clubhouse to house temporary facilities for the team. Upon examination, this area was identified by Leinster as not suitable for future use and a more suitable area, opposite the Ken Wall Center of Excellence, was identified for the Connacht and Ulster to use this week-end.
But unfortunately the Connacht squad “arrived earlier than expected” last Saturday, there was no one from Leinster’s match operations staff and a guy told them to get out into the area that was previously deemed unsuitable. “This error worsened,” added the spokesperson, “when Ulster also moved into this area”. When the teams from Leinster and Munster arrived later, they were directed to a more suitable site.
Taken at face value, this seems like a pretty plausible explanation, more of a scam than a conspiracy, certainly. Someone who doesn’t pay attention to details, someone somewhere who isn’t quite up to date with their brief. But when a culture comes from a wrong place, and even if it tries to redeem itself, an incident like this is sure to resonate. This is sure to spark ties to a time when the rugby establishment treated its players like second-class citizens. The symbolism of this episode becomes damaging as it is seen repeating old tropes.
What actually remains much more damaging are the long-term consequences of the IRFU’s historic neglect of women’s football. The number of adult women playing rugby is insignificant. In 2018, it was officially estimated at 1,341. Their goal is to increase this number to 5,000 by 2023.
It is still a pitiful figure. What the players achieved in 2013-15 was miraculous, given these numbers. But obviously, it was unbearable. This is the main reason why the current squad today find themselves in Italy facing a major challenge not only for their World Cup hopes, but also for their credibility and long-term viability as a unit. competitive.