'Whole lives lifted and plans put on hold' - Sean O'Brien speaks superbly on sacrifices made by female players 11 months ago

'Whole lives lifted and plans put on hold' - Sean O'Brien speaks superbly on sacrifices made by female players

"Maybe it's fine if the best Irish, Welsh and American female players are playing in those leagues, for a short period of time."

World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin believes England and France are "flying ahead" in the women's 15 game. His short-term club rugby solution may not please everyone.

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Back in the late 1990s, when men's rugby went professional, many of the best Irish players - Keith Wood, Victor Costello, Paul Wallace and more - headed to England for their club rugby. The IRFU, at the time, were short on funds for decent contracts and even the full-time offering was about £25,000 (punts) a year with a Ford Mondeo to scoot around in.

With the IRFU carrying out three separate reviews into women's rugby, in 2021, Gilpin suggests it may not be such a bad idea for players from Ireland, Wales, America and elsewhere to move to England or France for a higher level of club rugby experience.

The latest Ireland women's squad, for matches played late last year at The RDS, has seven players in it that have played [or are set to play] abroad - Linda Djougang (Clermont), Cliodhna Moloney, Sam Monaghan and Edel McMahon (all Wasps), Anna Caplice (Gloucester), Lauren Delaney (Firwood Waterloo) and Leah Lyons (Sale Sharks).

On the latest House of Rugby [LISTEN from 9:30 below], Gilpin spoke with hosts Seán O'Brien and Alex Goode, about players moving abroad to get better club rugby, the upcoming World Cup in New Zealand and a global calendar for 15s and Sevens.

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Alan Gilpin pictured speaking to the media at a briefing in Tokyo, back in 2019. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

World Rugby CEO on how to grow women's game

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Later this year will see the top nations in women's rugby head to New Zealand for a World Cup that was postponed from the original plans to stage it in late 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alex Goode believes big steps have been made to grow and promote the women's game, but he asked Alan Gilpin what other plans are in place.

"There's investment needed at every level in the women's game, for sure," Gilpin begins.

"Women's rugby is a really young sport, and a really, really young professional sport. There's lots of challenges that come with that, and there are enormous opportunities that come with that.

"We're seeing player numbers around the world, and not just the established nations, really growing. Like with anywhere we are trying to grow women's rugby, there is a lot you need to put in place to make it work, and be sustainable. Whether that is on the coaching side, match officiating and the medical side of the game. There's a huge effort [needed], I think, to invest in the women's game.

"Alongside that, how do we build out the competitiveness of the women's game internationally? And that's a big focus, this year, with the Women's World Cup. In order to be inspired to play the game, boys and girls need to see their own national teams playing well.

"We have to make sure we are bringing the women's game forward as a whole, and not just seeing one or two nations really pushing ahead, as we maybe saw last November."

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Gilpin says growing revenue is key for making investments across the board in women's rugby. We can see with TikTok coming in as sponsor for the Women's Six Nations that opportunities for revenue and brand connections is there.

"It's exciting," he adds, "and, with the women's game, we've got an unbelievable opportunity not to repeat some of the mistakes that we had in the men's game.

"If you look at over 25 years of professionalism in the men's game, you'll see how congested the calendar is, what that means for players, and in terms of competitions being the best they can be. We've got a chance to organise the women's game - Sevens and 15s - in a slightly different way."

Cliodhna Moloney, who plays with Wasps, is one of a number of Irish players vying their club trade abroad. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)
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'When, is it going to be an even playing field?' - Sean O'Brien

One aspect of the women's game that many followers of the game, and players, would love to see developed is improved club competitions. There sare strong domestic competitions in England and France, but international players from other nations are often starved of meaningful club (or provincial) games over a long period.

There has been decent attendances, and interest, in exhibition games involving French, English and Irish sides, and some form of European Cup club competition, even if it was held in a short window, would be another chance for elite players to test themselves.

Sean O'Brien has long been an advocate of supporting and growing the women's game, and he has got along to support Irish players in matches, in England, since he signed for London Irish in 2019.

"Many of those Irish players are now over here, and they are very happy to do that. But a lot of them have lifted their whole lives, families, put their plans on hold - in terms of getting married, kids, all that stuff. When do you foresee this ball rolling? And saying, 'Right, there's going to be a women's professional game in Ireland, Wales'?"

O'Brien, a regular attendee at women's matches, notes that England is already so much stronger from having professional players. "When," he asks, "is it going to be an even playing field?"

Gilpin notes that 'it has never gotten there, even in the men's game' when we talk about level playing fields. Different nations have more or less money to pump into the game, and World Rugby can often just poke, prod and advise.

"Our challenge with the women's game is - How do we get everybody to a base level? And get those basics right.

"You mention Ireland there. They've been called out, in Ireland, for not investing in the women's game. I know Kevin [Potts, IRFU chief executive] and the team there are really seeking to address that.

"We're seeing - and we really saw it last November - England and France flying ahead, in the 15s game in particular, with the investments they've made and professional leagues they've put in place.

"And maybe it's fine if the best Irish, Welsh and American female players are playing in those leagues, for a short period of time, to build their own competitiveness. But obviously, over time, there's got to be the best Irish players playing where Irish girls can see them, and be inspired."

Dejected Ireland players after they missed out on qualifying for the Rugby World Cup 2022. (Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile)

At present in the men's Six Nations, Italy are copping it in the ear for their long losing streak, despite the clear underage, coaching and infrastructure changes the FIA has implemented. The argument from several naysayers is that the competition is weakened by having a team most sides beat, most years.

What, then, for the Women's Six Nations? Heading into this year's tournament, everyone knows it will be France and England competing for the title. The other four nations will fight it out for third place so they can earn the right for games, later in the year, against the likes of New Zealand and Australia.

Something needs to be done to rise the tide quickly, as Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy are in danger of being cut adrift.

WATCH THAT FULL CHAT WITH ALAN GILPIN: