You may be aware of something called the Six Nations. It’s a rugby thing.
You may not, however, be aware that there is an Ireland senior women’s side. Yes, Ireland has two senior rugby squads. Count ‘em. They both represent this country, they both play in the Six Nations, they both play to qualify and succeed in the Rugby World Cup, and more.
But sadly, it seems that that’s where the similarities end. “Glass ceiling” doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s reached the stage where there is now a petition with several hundred signatures and counting which will be presented to the IRFU at the end of next month over the organisation’s unequal treatment of the women’s rugby game.
It has to change
On Monday, rugby legend Shane Byrne voiced his utter disbelief at the treatment of the women’s squad ahead of their crucial game against France at the weekend.
He gave this description of what had happened to the team last weekend:
“The ladies lost by one point, right down in the south of France. And just to [be] very critical of the IRFU, they had 27 hours travel. They arrived down there [in Pau] at 3 o’clock in the morning [on] the day of the game,” said Byrne. “Absolute disgrace”.
“You know [...] they’re representing the country. They’re putting on the green jersey for us. And they’re amateur, they do it for the joy of it. And to be treated like that, absolutely terrible”.
“They flew into Paris and got the cattle train down to the south of France, when there was umpteen options to fly down south”.
“You know, I just think it’s a disgrace, in this day and age. We’ve heard long ago when the women’s game was set together that that’s the way they were treated, but nowadays it shouldn’t happen”.
“It has to change”.
The events of last weekend
You remember last Saturday? While everyone, it seemed, was apoplectic about what wasn’t happening that night, most people outside of the rugby world were oblivious about what had happened earlier.
On Tuesday, journalist Gavin Cummiskey filled us in with more detail in The Irish Times. A former Ireland player, Jeanette Feighery, was moved to write to the paper on Wednesday.
Based on the drip-feed of information, we can roughly establish the following timeline of events:
• Friday morning: The men’s team leaves for Paris on a chartered flight.
• Friday afternoon: The women’s team leaves for Paris on (presumably) a scheduled commercial flight. They arrive in Charles de Gaulle airport, board a bus and promptly get caught up in Friday evening Paris rush hour traffic.
As a consequence, they are two hours late for their high speed train to the town of Pau in the foothills of the Pyrenees at the other end of the country. There are at least two major international airports near Pau, as well as an airport which serves the town itself.
Meanwhile, due to freezing weather conditions across France, the game has been brought forward from by three hours to 2:30pm (Irish time).
• Saturday morning, 7am: The team finally arrives in Pau. (Shane Byrne was out by five hours.) Before starting their day, they sleep for a total of three hours.
• Saturday afternoon: The team plays ferociously, but lose by an agonising single point to France.
Moreover, unlike their competitors, the team have not played an international match together since the last Six Nations tournament. A full year.
Hard luck and move on – right?
The total preparation for the competition was four weeks of training. It looks likely that the same will be the case when Six Nations 2013 rolls around.
So who cares anyway? Hard luck, and move on – right?
Not only would it be wholly unacceptable if Paul O’Connell and the rest of the team had been subjected to this farce, but what’s worse is that the women’s World Cup takes place in 2014. The IRB recently announced that for certain countries to qualify – including Ireland – will depend on (can you guess?) their performance in the Six Nations 2012 and 2013.
France, as World Cup hosts in 2014, and England, as World Cup winners in 2010, automatically qualify. The top two of the remaining Six Nations will go through to the 2014 competition. It is absolutely crucial that Ireland performs to the best of their ability in order to qualify.
But stay with me, my story gets better.
Then there’s 2016. The Olympics has confirmed that the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro will include rugby for the first time. The. Olympic. Games. Can we guess what it will take to qualify for that tournament? All we need to know is that this year the IRFU are not fielding a women’s team that is eligible for the Games.
Invisible and sidelined
One reason why people may hardly realise it exists at all is the almost total media blackout when it comes to coverage. Despite some progress you will still struggle to find a paragraph anywhere in the major sports pages – online or in print. And that includes those publications with big, impressive Six Nations supplements with fancy graphics. And you can basically forget about broadcast media.
Even the governing bodies relegate the women to back-of-the-bus status.
Look at the IRFU, the RBS Six Nations and the IRB websites: if you can find the sections relating to women, they’re hidden away past the teenagers and/or past the stats, image gallery and “hostpitality” pages and nestled in the “Club and Community” section.
The visual impact is quite something: it’s as though the women are an afterthought.
RTE has never broadcast a single women’s fixture
The Ireland squad have to my knowledge had a game broadcast a total of once. By Sky Sports. This was due to the fact that England was hosting the World Cup at the time, and Sky had agreed with the RFU to broadcast the England games. (Albeit on Sky Sports 4 – who knew it existed?)
By contrast, the state broadcaster RTÉ has never broadcast a single women’s fixture.
The grassroots support is unquestionably there, just as it was before the men’s rugby went professional: the fans and players (men and women alike) for whom rugby is all there is are hugely supportive of the women’s side. From officialdom, however, the story appears to be very different.
Time for women’s rugby to go pro?
The Irish Times recently described rugby as “just the day job” for Jamie Heaslip. If only it were so for the women. The women’s game, however, is fully amateur. Every player dedicates herself completely and with the utmost professionalism in attitude and commitment; yet not a single player is paid.
They all balance full-time jobs or studies (or both) with their sporting commitments at club, provincial and national level. If they’re putting on the green jersey, they need to put in a leave request with the boss or the dean.
It boggles the mind.
And yet, despite all of this struggle, the intractable attitudes, the countless obstacles, Ireland’s women contend and hold their own with some of the toughest – and far better resourced – teams in the world.
Presumably the IRFU could cobble together a little seed money out of the massive profits generated from the men’s professional game and give the women at least a sporting chance.
Can you imagine the potential, and what the players could really achieve, if anyone who could make a difference actually gave a damn about Irish women’s team?