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09th Jun 2018

Women’s tour cancellation sours Irish Rugby’s imperfect season

Jack O'Toole

In many ways you couldn’t have drawn up a better season for Irish Rugby.

Ireland swept the Six Nations for their first Grand Slam since 2009 and their third Six Nations title in the last five years under Joe Schmidt.

Leinster claimed a historic Champions Cup and PRO14 double, a first for a Celtic Rugby side, while Munster made the penultimate stage of both competitions and would have been in the European final with Leinster if it had not have been for a five point swing on a sunny day in Bordeaux.

James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale went from peripheral figures to household names while the likes of Dan Leavy, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Chris Farrell and John Cooney enjoyed breakout campaigns.

There was a 45 metre match winning drop goal, a clean sweep of the November internationals, Johann van Graan’s seamless transition to Munster, another year of brilliance from Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen, senior players like Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls all getting back to their best form. Anthony Eddy’s Ireland Sevens side reaching their first ever Rugby Sevens Cup semi-final.

It was undeniably great. Short of Munster toppling Racing in a Champions Cup semi-final, the IRFU couldn’t have dreamt of a better season for Irish Rugby.

But then there was the Gerbrandt Grobler situation and the IRFU’s non-committal to signing convicted dopers in the future. The Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding rape trial and the lack of clarity concerning the revocation of both players contracts with Ulster and the IRFU.

There was the lack of clarity regarding the Women’s World Cup tournament review and subsequent findings from the Su Quinn/Mary Carty committee.

The failed bid for a Rugby World Cup which Ireland were never truly ready to host. The advertising of a ‘part-time’ role for the Women’s head coaching role and now most recently, the IRFU’s decision to reject an offer from Australian Women’s Rugby for a three-test series in Australia this summer, a series which AWR president Josephine Sukkar reportedly offered to cover the Ireland squad’s accommodation [per The Irish Times].

The proposed three-test series would have taken place in conjunction with the men’s tour with Sukkar claiming that the Irish women’s team would have taken on their Australian counterparts before the men’s Test matches in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne this month.

Furthermore, Aer Lingus, a primary sponsor of the IRFU, were expected to cover the cost of the required flights but the tour was rejected by the union to ‘prioritise their focus on the women’s November international fixtures to build into the Six Nations’, which, of course, takes place five months from now.

If the players couldn’t get the necessary time off work then maybe that’s an understandable reason to not commit to a tour of such length on such short notice, but it seems the players weren’t consulted while you also now have a situation where it appears that flights and accommodation would have both been handled by third parties.

Women’s Rugby benefits from having nationally televised games as part of the Six Nations broadcast package but the lack of transparency from the post-World Cup review, the advertising of a ‘part-time’ coaching role and the cancellation of a tour which would have given good exposure and represented a step forward for the women’s sport in Ireland has ultimately been squandered.

The Irish women’s rugby team has been far from alone this year in terms of feeling alienated by their representing organisation but the tour cancellation is another significant blow for progress for the women’s code here less than one year after Ireland hosted the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

The hosting of that tournament was supposed to be a landmark moment for Women’s Rugby in Ireland but ever since then there’s been a string of incidents that have frustrated, upset and antagonised a host of former players publicly, and what is sure to be many more privately, as the women’s teams look to narrow the equality gap at a time where we’re seeing nationally contracted women’s players and the introduction of semi-professional domestic leagues in other countries.

How can female players ever hope of a national contract system in Ireland like those seen in New Zealand, or even in England in years goneby, when they can’t even get the green light for a series in a country where the men’s team are already playing their games and where a foreign union is willing to pay accommodation costs?

2018 saw so much on-field success for Irish Rugby as the national team and provinces both enjoyed historic seasons.

This weekend’s focus should be on how Joey Carbery will look alongside future Munster teammate Conor Murray, how John Ryan will fare against Scott Sio in the front-row, what Jordan Larmour can do off the bench and can he use this series as a launchpad to potentially challenge for a starting place at next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.

But the focus is not on those stories and how can it be when the women’s team have once again been so blatantly marginalised by their own union?

The Women’s Rugby World Cup was supposed to be a starting point for future growth but it now increasingly looks like the beginning of a downward spiral and a dry run for Ireland’s failed bid to host the men’s equivalent in 2023.

When Ireland were awarded hosting rights for the women’s tournament in 2015, former World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset said:

“With impressive results on and off the field, the IRFU is a leader in driving forward the promotion and development of women’s rugby and the union’s passion, dedication and expertise in women’s rugby was reflected in an impressive and forward think.

“The awarding of Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 to Ireland is great news for teams and fans as the sport continues to reach out and inspire new participants in our great game.”

The awarding of the World Cup may have inspired an initial group of new players to try women’s rugby but how many can draw inspiration from what has transpired since?

A sad end to a season with unbelievable highs and uncomfortable lows.

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