On paper, the flight of Irish women’s players to England is reminiscent of the men’s game at the end of the 1990s, when the best players swapped the AIL for the Premiership and the IRFU was faced with a dilemma.
ack then, English clubs were offering good money or talented players and the clubs couldn’t compete.
However, for the five members of Ireland’s women’s team who are currently playing in England and France the equation is quite different.
Moving abroad is about the opportunity to test yourself against a higher level of players on a weekly basis.
Financially, it’s not worth their while but, with the AIL currently top-heavy and in need of real attention from the IRFU, they see it as a worthwhile sacrifice, as they look to get the most out of their short careers.
Five members of the starting pack play outside of Ireland.
Sam Monaghan and Edel McMahon play at Wasps, Neve Jones plays for Gloucester-Hartpury, and captain Nichola Fryday lines out for Exeter Chiefs.
Last year, the IRFU broke new ground when it brokered a deal for Linda Djougang to move to ASM Romagnat, and yet the same organisation refuses to pick overseas-based players for their men’s team.
“The women’s game stands alone in one way, it’s very different to the men’s game,” Ireland coach Greg McWilliams explained.
“We need to realise what we’re trying to do is create a high-performing environment. Things are different. We use Sevens players, we’ve girls playing overseas. It’s different to the men’s games.
“It’s the ability for us to come together and put the best players on the field, who are going to represent Ireland to the best of their ability.
“The AIL is improving, we know that. Long-term, would I love them all to come back to Ireland? Of course. But, I was a coach who went overseas to try and better myself, and these players are doing the same.
“They’re trying to go over and play at a really high standard, test themselves and experience another country. It’s not just about the rugby, they’re growing up as people. You’ve got to encourage that.
“We just have to realise that there’s so many parts to the women’s game, we’re feeding many masters. As long as we’re aligned with the UK coaches, the AIL coaches – we’re good to go.”
While the IRFU, ultimately, opted to bring the men home and beef up the provinces in the early 2000s, the solution in the women’s game is likely to come from the clubs – and a small core are pushing standards, in the hope of building a sustainable, competitive league that can supply players to the international team.
The recent final between Railway Union and Blackrock was a good spectacle, but the overall competition lacks depth and the disparity between the top-four teams and the rest is huge.
As well as the five overseas-based players, six of the starting XV are part of the Sevens set-up, which means just three are out-and-out AIL players.
Even the small step s towards progress are a struggle. Tonight, the Munster Branch AGM will convene to consider whether to bestow senior status on clubs whose first team plays in the women’s AIL, but indications are it will be a tight vote and may not pass because of the reluctance of existing senior clubs.
Ballincollig RFC are currently the only one of 60 AIL clubs who do not have senior status, but that there’s a fight to be had indicates the cultural change needed along the way.
The whole thing will be the subject of an overall review into the structures of the women’s game, but some want to beef up the provinces, while those on the ground insist an elite league can deliver what Ireland need.
In the meantime, a contingent of players, who aren’t in line for Sevens deals, will be conscious of their short careers – and will vote with their feet.
“Certainly not,” Edel McMahon said of the idea that she’s a full-time professional. “I work still, Sam Monaghan, my Wasps comrade, she works full-time as well.
“At Wasps I think we have only two players – Abby Dow and (Claudia) MacDonald – that are full-time professionals. Everyone else at the club is working part-time or full-time and training full-time. It’s just a balance.
“The biggest help from playing in the Premiership is that you come up against Welsh, Scottish and English players, that level of familiarity makes it easier. You know what they play like, that factor of the unknown is less. You’re not intimidated.”
Two decades ago, the IRFU figured out a way to bring their best men’s players home.
The hope is that the next review recommends funding and supporting a sustainable league to allow the players who want to remain to achieve their goals while not being out of pocket.