WOMEN’S RUGBY NEEDS TO TURN PROFESSIONAL

I have always held the belief that the women’s game needs to turn professional, and the time is now. The interest is there. Sooner is better than later. Looking back on the 6 nations just finished, it stood on its own two feet, got the attention of so many more people and has drawn more potential players and fans to the game.

The absence of high quality rugby in Ireland outside test windows needs to be fixed. Players that have made the switch to England have said the leap from AIL to interpro is huge, then there’s the step from that to premier 15s, and that’s before you take the step to international rugby. Ireland are going to be left chasing England, France, New Zealand and others if the IRFU and the other Celtic nations don’t do something soon. 

But if you are one of the many Irish people looking to see more women’s rugby what do you do? Watch the English Premier 15s? Wait until the AIL returns and hope that at best we can go and watch, or at worst, all teams have streams or some forms of highlights? Or wait until Ireland competes in the world cup qualifiers? They have a framework in what is the old Celtic league to work with, and the administration knowledge to make it work. But we know the IRFU have said that professionalism isn’t an option let alone something this ambitious, until the player base expands. 

But why not do both?

How many 12-15 year old girls are going to choose not to continue with rugby because there is no future for them or not choose rugby at all. Where do 18 year old girls go to when there isn’t an academy to take them in and hone that talent. At the moment the Irish U20s is a private venture and I know in Connacht Clubforce are bridging that gap. 

But why is it falling to private institutions?

This isn’t a surprising fact as the IRFU have relied on and even pushed private schools to power the men’s game. A small handful of schools are the backbone of Leinster Rugby and at present the Men’s national team. And this isn’t meant as an attack on those institutions or those in the position to send their children to one. I think if you are in the position to give your child something more that is great. Just remember the sport as a whole can’t and shouldn’t rely on it. Arguments will be made about not all players came through those channels but a significant number have.  Just under two thirds or the Ireland Men’s squad named for the 2021 six nations went to a private school.

The Women’s game doesn’t have those institutions to rely on, and can’t wait a hundred years or so for them to build that base.

A professional set up and the academy system it would bring, would create the environment needed to develop the game at club level. In Connacht it would stop the rush of players to Dublin. As the game is amateur at the moment players have to follow their college courses, or jobs and then wrap their rugby around that. For example the three Connacht players in the 6 nations squad, are all playing their club rugby in Dublin. If the Women’s provincial teams were professional entities, those players would be living in Galway with rugby being their initial focus. Then like the men, getting the support required to ensure their education, future businesses, or job prospects when they stop playing.

That focused academy set up would strengthen the connection from club to province, and layout a clear pathway to international honours.

They are just the structural benefits that the professional system would bring, but what are the performance benefits?

In the 2021 6 nations that just passed, where Ireland finished comfortably third but a level below France and England. Ireland played with heart, grit, and determination. You could not fault the performance level, but three things let them down. The penalty count, the error count and the quality of decision making. Ireland have tried to fix these issues within the framework of the amateur game in the past, as Einstein is credited to have said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

It’s time to change the method if we are to close that gap, as those issues are the exact things professionalism would fix quicker than anything else. 

Professionalism would guarantee games. How do you fix decision making on a pitch? Play more games of a higher standard. What happens when decision making improves? The penalty count comes down. Want to stop unforced errors? Play games against opponents of a higher standard, not just players that are battling for your jersey on repeat. 

Gametime is the best way of learning what works and what doesn’t work. 

Gametime with full time coaches working through problems and mistakes, with the opportunity to correct them 5 days later. Full time specialist coaches working on handling, kicking, scrummaging, defence, you name the area that can be worked on there’s time for it. In this environment the golden 10,000 hour mark is a lot easier to get to, and those hours are more effective in an high performance setting, with weekly games to prepare for.

It would be easy to say that there is the caveat that we are living through a pandemic. That is just an excuse, we have seen with the Men’s game that where there is the will a way can be found. Bubbles can be created, testing can be organised, travel corridors created. 

I worry that we’ll lose more players to the “real world”, and that women and girls will choose a life outside rugby. Ireland currently has generational talents that could forge a path for those coming behind. 

This isn’t the first time this has been said remember when

  • The Irish Women beat the Black Ferns in a world cup Semi final on the 5 August 2014. Before the Men’s team beat the All Blacks
  • The Grand Slams in both 2013 and 2015 
  • How hosting the World Cup in 2017 was to be a new dawn for Irish rugby.

If we are serious about women’s rugby we can not keep having the same conversations, and fail another generation of international athletes. 

The time to act is now!

Padraig Kelly

The 2nd Row

2 Comments

  1. While I agree with a lot of the sentiment of that I think that introducing professionalism now would not address the deeper issues in the women’s game in Ireland and could actually do damage by only focusing on the short term.
    Making the top thirty or so players professional would be like putting the roof on your house before digging the foundations or building the walls.
    The AIL and the levels below need serious support in coaching and administration in order to produce talent.
    The only existing development pathways are through inter-provincial sides (which have not been given much attention by the powers that be) or the Sevens (which has been given a huge focus because it gives the most bang for your buck). I think the IRFU need to invest some time in creating a development structure that would utilise third-level institutions in the pathway. This would bridge the gap between underage and senior structures and might also be a great place to pick up players from other sports. It could take the place of the schools system in men’s rugby as the primary pathway. It also allows for regional development centres and doesn’t rely on all the players having to move to Dublin. All the third-level institutions should be partnered with clubs in order to get players to stay in the game after finishing their education and this would strengthen the AIL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those partnerships are already in place in the men’s game.
      Like i say above, a proper academy structure that could only come from professionalism would utilize those same tools.
      It’s not the national team I’m looking to professionalise its all of it!

      Liked by 1 person

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