Throwback Thursday : The Irish Women’s team – how can fans help?

For this week’s TT I’m going back exactly two years to an article I wrote on the Irish Women’s team after a defeat in the 2021 Six Nations; I thought it was interesting to evaluate what has/hasn’t been done in the meantime. It’s certainly hasn’t been nothing, but it also certainly hasn’t been enough, and it’s noteworthy that the two players I quote at the beginning of the article have both left the team by choice since.

In the meantime we have seen a constant stream of articles, sometimes highlighting positive moves forward, but other times highlighting either actual negative acts or a general lack of necessary action. Then the “debate” proceeds on Twitter where basically anyone who pushes back against the status quo is either asked to forget about the past or gets derided as “nameless keyboard warriors”.

The only way forward is to have less rowing and more listening.

Women’s Six Nations Championship Round 3, Energia Park, Donnybrook, Dublin 17/4/2021
Ireland Women vs France WomenIreland’s Beibhinn Parsons comes up against Laure Sansus and Cyrielle Banet of France
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne


first published April 19, 2021

My plan was to give the Ireland v France match the “full Harpin treatment”, ie cover it exactly as I would the men’s team. There was a preview on Friday, I’d tweet during the match, collect opinions after the fulltime whistle which I would then share in a post on the Sunday, and finally this writeup on the Monday.

But as the match wore on it dawned on me – is this really helping? If I left my scheduled Facebook post asking followers to “Feel free to leave your thoughts…” to publish on time would that be guaranteed to provide the constructive debate we usually get each weekend after the Leinster & Ireland men’s teams play?

Now to be clear, I wasn’t asking this because I saw the scoreline as a disaster that wasn’t worth commentary, far from it. My personal impression from the 80 minutes was that this was the same starting XV which won convincingly in Cardiff just seven days before, they opened the match with the same will and determination and managed to get the first score on the board, only to just lack the required accuracy to keep the momentum going and ended up getting punished by a squad which had a lot more rugby in their legs.

“We played into the French hands by trying to move the ball too quickly, by not being set. Our accuracy in the breakdown when we’re challenged by a world-class team let us down.” – Claire Molloy

“I must say, the gap wasn’t huge. If we tighten up a few areas, I’d like to see us go forward and we’ve next weekend and we can show that.” – Ciara Griffin

Those post match comments from senior players in the team perfectly reflected what I saw. There were many positives from them throughout the match, and not just in that opening spell. When we played with accuracy, there were good outcomes, and our two tries off set pieces showed that. Plus with players like Stacey Flood impressing off the bench, we showed that while our depth may not have been as strong as our opponents’, we still definitely had it.

But would the wider viewing public feel the same? Or could they bring themselves to see past the scoreline and at least try to talk about a glass that’s half full?

So I cancelled the Facebook post and just monitored the online reaction myself privately as the weekend wore on, and I also realised that penning a match writeup exactly the same way I do week in week out on these pages probably wasn’t going to help all that much either.

Then on Sunday morning I came across the tweet thread you see below (reproduced with permission of the account owners btw)

“Women’s sport has come a long way in recent years.  In particular, the popularity of women’s rugby has grown hugely. 

5/6 years ago on SM 80% of the chat about women’s rugby was negative. It was largely abuse, misogyny dressed up as a “joke” all from non-fans.

Nowadays it’s 80% support. People who love the sport, who’ve taken the time to get to know the women’s game. True fans of the team.  The game is now getting incredible media coverage. The women are getting some of the exposure they deserve. Our game is being celebrated.

But unfortunately there is still that 20% of abuse. I’m sure it doesn’t sound like much, and the men get online abuse too when they lose, none of it is ever ok.

But what stings when it’s comes to the women’s game is this:

As female athletes, their womanhood is the target.  The abusive comments are always dripping with misogyny. Everything from comparing their standard to men’s or teenage boys, to telling them to get back in the kitchen to comments on their sexuality.

Often the abuse is dressed up as “genuine criticism”.  Let me tell you unequivocally, that when you’ve seen it for years, you see through it.

The abuse comes from men 99% of the time. It comes from men who hardly know the game and know even less about the women’s side. From men who are silent when we win and loud when we lose.

It’s not ok. Sexism and misogyny aren’t acceptable. The players see it, and no matter how thick skinned they are, it still hurts. Because they’ve fought this misogyny all their life, just to get to play sport at this level.  Even when they’ve “made it” it’s still there. Always.

Telling fans or players to “ignore it” solves nothing. It doesn’t lessen the impact of what is said. It doesn’t make it easier to see the abuse. And it doesn’t do anything to stop the abuse.  It needs to be challenged. The positivity needs to get louder, drown it out.

As supporters, the 80% you’re already doing so much of that. You’re shouting louder. You’re offering unyielding support. You see the negatives as opportunities to improve  and the positives are celebrated.  As supporters, whether you know it or not, you are countering the abuse.

You do so with positive support online, by clicking into articles about the team, by listening to podcasts and by buying jerseys.

Thank you for your positivity. Thank you for your support.  Onwards to SATURDAY!”

@IrishWomens – Irish Women’s Rugby Supporters Club

I don’t think I could have found a better explanation of how we can help the team.  And I particularly like the use of percentages because it goes toward defining the spectrum of opinion and forces you to ask yourself where you are on it.

Obviously I see myself in the 80% as mentioned and I’m pretty sure nobody would dispute that.  However, if you were to break down that majority into smaller groups again, I’d have to hold up my hand and admit that I’m a lot closer to the minority than I’d like.

I know just the mere presence of a word like “misogyny” will trigger a lot of men to react yet anyone who denies it exists is fooling himself, and it’s up to us to call it out whenever we see it.  But that’s not all that requires discussion here so this article isn’t about that. 

Actually the part that I found myself identifying with the most was this : “Everything from comparing their standard to men’s or teenage boys…“.  I know I’ve been guilty of this.

I have thought for a long time that if there was one thing the organisers of women’s rugby should do first it would be to vow not to model every competition on the men’s equivalent.  And gradually over time they have done this, like scheduling the Women’s World Cup in a different year to the men and this year even the Six Nations made some changes to make sure it was played this season.  

Personally I like the pool format and if anything I’d look to expanding it to include the likes of Spain and the Netherlands in future seasons but if they must return to the six-team round robin, I really think they should consider at least keeping it in a different window to the male equivalent for maximum exposure.

But for all my talk about making sure there was a difference, there was I planning to cover them today exactly the same as the men!!!  And had I done my normal writeup, I probably would have over-analysed specific match situations using the sort of thing I’d expect from the men as a framework.

If I really want to help, that has to stop.  When I think about it, to appreciate the differences between the two codes you don’t even have to consider gender.  We’re talking about two completely different sets of people who might be playing the same sport and wearing practically the same green jersey, yet their journeys to getting there have been very different.

Over the weekend there was an article in the Indo by Sinéad Kissane where she tells the story of the first ever Irish women’s international in 1993.  Even though the men’s game was only on the cusp of professionalism at the time, the gulf in how the teams prepared was still incredibly wide then, and unfortunately this disparity was still evident in 2012 on an infamous away date with the French.

Clearly a lot of those issues have been resolved, and much success has followed from there including a Grand Slam and a World Cup semifinal, culminating in our hosting of the 2017 global competition in both Dublin and Belfast.  

However things since then haven’t exactly gone so well it’s fair to say, though to blame it all entirely on the IRFU might be a bit harsh.  In fact, if anything the shift to professionalism has been a bit similar to what originally happened with the men in that both England and France were the first to make the switch and were always better positioned logistically to bring it about more quickly.

Say what you like about the amount of mistakes the Irish players made on Saturday, but if you think the 80 minutes would have progressed exactly the same if they had played as much top level rugby with exactly the same facitlities as their opposition over the past 12 months then there’s no point discussing further because we’d be on competely different pages.

That said, while the responsibility for the current situation doesn’t lie completely at the door of our own union (also when you factor in COVID-19 and all the uncertainly and reduced funding it has brought) there’s really nowhere else for us to look when it comes to finding a path forward.

Is a completely fulltime set up for the senior women’s squad an attainable goal right now?  If not, then what can we do to raise the levels from where they are?  And what of the other end of the scale – are the structures right in the club game to attract the Ciara Griffins, Claire Molloys and Beibhinn Parsons of the future?

Obviously those questions are well above my paygrade to answer, but if we want to help as fans, we still need to be asking them, as well as clicking on the articles and listening to the podcasts and buying the jerseys.

And we also need to make sure we don’t let a result like this turn us off from supporting the girls.  They now play Italy next week in a third place play-off.  For one thing, it will be a great leveller to see where the team really is, especially as the Italians have impressed in their two matches so far with a well-organised defence.  

But also, for all the talk about England and France dominating the European women’s game, third place in the Six Nations will carry a lot of weight in future seasons as it will mean qualification for the new WXV tournament which World Rugby announced recently.  We definitely want to be a part of that.

And speaking of qualifying, our road to the next World Cup lies through a series involving Italy, Scotland and probably Spain.  This should happen later in 2021 so the more rugby the girls can play between now and then the better.

Details like these are ones we need to know and when the matches come about, we must offer our full support.  I understand our clash with Italy has been switched to Dublin for COVID reasons so at the time of writing I’m not entirely sure if the kickoff time is still 12pm.  

Hopefully it will avoid a clash with the other matches the same weekend – I know the enthusiasm isn’t exactly high for the Rainbow Cup but let’s not forget the match in Cardiff was put right up against Exeter v Leinster so this is another area where the organisers must do better.

In the meantime I will try to do better myself by getting behind the team whenever they play and looking for information in the right places like following @IrishWomens and websites like Scrumqueens and fingers crossed the day won’t be long coming that the 80% gets a lot closer to 100% and I can produce writeups that do the team justice.  JLP

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