Participation and interest in women’s Rugby has never been bigger in Connacht.
With over 60 teams from 21 out of the 26 affiliated clubs in the region, from youth and minis up to adult, and several schools playing Rugby there has been a huge growth in the sport in the province over the last 15 years.
Wendy Hickey, the women’s rugby development officer for south Connacht, says that the increased media coverage of female Rugby -- as well as young players having local aspirational models such as Ireland international Beibhinn Parsons to look up to -- with initiatives such #CantSeeCantBe have been contributing factors to the growing popularity of the women’s game.
“It is an important initiative,” the Quebec native says of the #CantBeCantSee scheme.
“We need to be able to get female Rugby players seen. The more they’re playing, the more young girls can get to see that it could be them going down the line and they could be playing Rugby and representing their club or their province or their country.
“It's a fantastic campaign and I hope more clubs get behind it. It’s great that female players who play for Ireland or for Connacht become role models for younger girls and can become household names. It’s great that there’s a homegrown talent(Parsons) that there’s on our doorstep. It’s great to have her and I think there will be a lot more coming down the line, there's amazing talents in the clubs, and it's kickstarting what we will see coming down the line, I’m sure.”
When Hickey, a former Galwegians player, was first appointed to the Connacht branch as a women’s Rugby officer in 2004, there was only one female team -- at Galwegians -- within the five counties of the province.
Now, though, 21 out of 26 of the clubs affiliated with Connacht have female teams, across the entire spectrum of age grades. Galwegians compete in the All Ireland League -- a stage where Westport are also intent on reaching in the near future -- and there are six teams -- plus Ballinrobe, who will transition to adult competition when the season kicks off -- who play adult Rugby in the Western province.
The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to the sport, but the numbers in training across the board remained high until further COVID restrictions saw team sport called to a halt, thanks to the strong work of the clubs in ensuring they followed the protocols to the highest of standards.
“The numbers have actually increased in the clubs,” despite COVID, Hickey said.
“The clubs are very good, with regards to the protocols they have to have in place. Because of that, parents are very comfortable in having their girls go to training even though it is a contact sport. All the clubs are completely following what needs to be followed, which is great."
Hickey is confident that -- following on from the strong underage participation number and interest, among both players and parents -- more teams will start to play in adult Rugby in the future, when the current underage crop of players reach that age. Ballinrobe and Our Lady’s Boys Club are the two latest clubs to field adult women's teams
“Now we’re in a position where those youth teams that have come from U14’s, 16’s and 18’s and now the aim is that we’re going to get a new wave of adult teams of women that are 18/19/20 years old but have been playing since they were U14’s. That’s where we’re coming to. We hope to have more adult teams as the years go on.”
There is an emphasis on playing Rugby as a means of having fun and socialising within Connacht and Hickey says that, first and foremost, is the priority. Players have a pathway to advance to provincial and possibly international selection, but for the vast majority of participants, the game is about having fun and mixing with friends, and enjoying the sport.
“It’s great to be able to offer that pathway for the players that have the ambition and want to go ahead. But there is also that social player, who just wants to go and have fun and play and be part of their club,” said Hickey, who has worked in her current capacity -- although she used to cover the whole province -- since 2008.
“There’s someone who might want to become a referee, there’s someone who isn’t playing but they are part of their club as a volunteer. Whatever it is, there are more and more people involved in clubs that thought they would never have been part of a Rugby family. There is a huge amount of opportunity for players who just want to enjoy Rugby and play at the level they are able to play at.”
Looking forward, Hickey is keen that the female game expands further in the province and that more women or girls become involved in the sport in any capacity, be they as players, coaches, referees or volunteers.
“We want to get more women, past players perhaps, to pick up the whistle and give it(refereeing) a go. Some people have backgrounds in tag Rugby, or some have a massive interest in Rugby and have never played but they could offer something in refereeing,” she said.
“It’s been positive in relation to playing numbers, to getting more women involved in coaching and to getting women involved in leadership roles in the clubs. We have Anne Heneghan who is President of the Connacht Branch, which is massive. There is a lot of positivity going forward.”