There has been a significant growth in the number of schools playing girls Rugby in Connacht over the course of the last two years.
In the 2019/20 school year, 21 girls schools teams from across the province played competitively, an increase of nine from 12 the previous year. From these teams, who competed in ten a side games, there were over 200 players, almost double the amount of participants from 2018/2019.
In total, 12 schools -- across both junior and senior age grades -- played girls schools Rugby in the last school year, which represents a growth of three schools from the preceding year. There were no girls schools teams in 2018, highlighting the rapid growth of the sport in a short space of time.
Emer O’Dowd, Connacht Rugby Women's Development Officer for North Connacht, has hailed the huge increase of participation in girls schools Rugby, and said that the aim is to eventually establish a 15 a side league and cup competition.
“The school's game has grown massively and it’s brilliant,” the Mayo native said.
“In another couple of years, we will hopefully have a full-on 15 a side schools league and cup competition. We have one now, but it’s 10 a side. Numbers are growing and more and more schools are getting involved. It’s great and it’s grown massively this year.”
As head coach of the Club Force Emerging Talent Programme, a stepping stone between underage Rugby and adult competition for 18 to 24-year-olds, O’Dowd has been impressed by the levels of talent in the province.
She says that the success of the likes of Beibhinn Parsons and Nicole Fowley -- two players who came through the system from clubs in Connacht and played for Ireland -- has proved to young players that there is a pathway to the highest levels of Rugby west of the Shannon. The aim of the programme is to build the confidence and increase the skill levels of young players before they transition to adult level.
“There’s a lot of Beibhinn’s coming through, we can see it all over the province and it’s exciting”, the former Galwegians player, who has worked with Connacht in various capacities since 2008, said.
“We formed the team last year and we had about 30 girls training, from 18 to 24-year-olds. We wanted to bring them in and give them some upskilling and training. We had the likes of Mary Healy, the former Ireland international, and Andy Friend and Pete Wilkins coming down to do sessions. We had professional coaches coming in to do sessions on specific areas. We had Craig Hansbury coming in to do work with the forwards and scrummaging, we had Ross Mannion coming in and then Lyndon Jones and myself and Mary(Healy) working on specific things.”
Clubforce, a Galway based sports participation management system used by clubs, leagues and governing bodies to fund and drive greater participation in sport, coming on board as sponsors of the Emerging Talent Programme has allowed the team to grow and put plans in place for the future.
Pre Covid, the Emerging Talent team -- who have played against their Munster equivalents and touring American College teams since their establishment a year ago -- were due to tour London and play London Irish -- a trip made possible by the sponsorship -- but the pandemic unfortunately caused its postponement.
“They said they’d back us, which gave us a huge opportunity to put this team together and put the money and funding into it,” O’Dowd says of Clubforce’s sponsorship.
“It would have culminated into a tour over to London Irish last April, but it didn’t happen. But it will happen, once we get the green flag to start training again and start flying again then we’re going to go. It has been paused and not cancelled. It’s great to have Clubforce there to put the funding into us and have that money ring-fenced for us, it gives us great opportunities.”