Exclusive: Women’s rugby “the next big thing” in sport
Organised by Philip Mullins and Trevor Keane, and hosted by rugby greats Shane Byrne and Jim Glennon – with a surprise appearance from Joe Schmidt, Head Coach with Leinster – the night included a discussion of women’s rugby and the opportunities for the sport.
Image: The Rugby Business Network
Currently without a sponsor for either the 15-a-side squad (which will next line out in the Six Nations) or for the 7-a-side squad (which will compete at the Sevens Rugby World Cup in Moscow next year in what will be the first stop on the road to Rio 2016), the subject of women’s rugby generated a lot of discussion – and huge support.
Starting the conversation, and given the exciting summer of sport that has been, one of the questions asked during the evening was: What is the next big thing in sport?
In Jim Glennon’s view it’s women’s sevens rugby:
It mightn’t be the biggest thing [at the moment], but watch it over the next four years. The IRFU are throwing their full weight behind women’s sevens for Rio 2016, and it will be well worth watching.
Women’s rugby is a sport which is completely taking off. [Sevens rugby] only got into the Olympics because the IOC said, “Yes you can have the men in there, but everything has to be parity, so we have to have women.”
And the Irish women’s team could yet become the first women’s team to actually qualify for an Olympics. Can you imagine that?
Hartnett added an anecdote to starkly highlight an issue that is at once a challenge and an opportunity for women’s rugby:
And yet, think back to the launch of the RBS Six Nations this year. Fiona Coghlan was pictured alongside Paul O’Connell either side of the Six Nations trophy.
Paul O’Connell had a huge, big “O2″ on his jersey. Fiona was the only one of the Six Nations captains to actually walk through in the photocall without a sponsor on the jersey.
We’ve seen how everything in the Olympics was so brilliant. Everything in the Olympics is about parity. So, women’s sport is the future.
Ireland v Italy (24 Feb 2012). Image: © Joan O’Connell
Later during Q&A, I asked Shane Byrne, from his experience going from amateur to professional rugby, whether he thinks there are any parallels to be seen in the development of the women’s game or any lessons to be learned from that?
Byrne responded by saying that Ireland’s women can take the same strides as the men in rugby: “Absolutely”.
The women’s game is very much an attitude-based thing. The attitudes the women have are exactly on par with the Brian O’Driscolls, with the Gordon D’Arcys, with the Paul O’Connells. With the women, the passion is there. They want to improve just as much.
The game complements their physicality, the levels that they’re at, and it’s developing at an equal rate, but [it's] different to the men’s game. There’s much more concentration on skills. And to me that’s what it’s all about.
Jim Glennon developed the point, sharing his views on the women’s game:
The reason why I think it has such potential for 2016 is that, first of all, it will be the first time that there has ever been a women’s sevens competition in the Olympics. And, for that reason, most of the big Olympic powers that we tend to think of haven’t got ’round to it yet. So it’s a relatively open playing field.
It will also attract a number of elite athletes from other Irish sports – I’m thinking particularly of sprinters who mightn’t just make the athletics side, but who may well have played Gaelic football or camogie in their youth, and would find the hand-eye co-ordination and ball-carrying relatively easy.
For sevens, you probably need a squad of about 14 or 15 [players]. It’s very manageable for smaller countries. And particularly for one of the traditional powers of the game. I just think it’s there to be captured.
Regardless of sponsorship, I think you’re going to have a very exciting few years watching how it goes from zero to, I would think, top ten at the Olympics in Rio is relatively easily done. And with a bit of luck and injury-free, you could even be talking podium.
So, the sporting talent is there, the support within rugby is there. Discussion is one thing, however; what companies and broadcasters will put their money where their mouth is and invest in the women’s game?
Former Welsh rugby international, Melita Williams, joked that as a Welsh blow-in she may have reason to be glad that the Ireland squad has no sponsor. She pointed out, however, that this was a business networking event and, to applause from the room, asked:
What are you all going to do about it?!
So – RTÉ, companies, venues – it’s over to you. There are just seven months until the World Cup. Let’s get this on TV screens, let’s get money, resources and support into the game. The countdown to Rio has begun!
Ireland v Scotland (9 Mar 2012). Image: © Joan O’Connell
- Shane Byrne is currently Director of Arklow Waste Disposal
- Jim Glennon is currently a Public Affairs Consultant with Edelman
- Joe Schmidt is Head Coach with Leinster Rugby
- Melita Williams is Director of Bespoke Belfast
- Rob Hartnett is Director of SportforBusiness.com
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