11 January 2019

Women's Rugby in Connacht is thriving like never before, and now Connacht Rugby is shining a light on all the great work that has been done in the past and is continuing to take place around the province to promote the female rugby stars of the future.
Starting today on a weekly basis, you'll get to read a bit about every club in Connacht that offers a Girls Rugby programme. You can find out about what they've done in the past, how many teams they have, what times they train and who are the people that bring Girls Rugby to life in the club.
First up we have Ballina RFC, with text and pics with thanks to Michael Gallagher and Deirdre Whyte.

Ballina RFC is an exciting place to be these days with a great sense of vibrancy running through the club. A huge part of this is the thriving Girls Rugby section which has gone from strength to strength since it took its first hesitant steps nine years ago.
That was a time when Girls Rugby was only a thing that happened somewhere else, a sport that we heard about but didn’t see in our own community – today, it’s a crucially important section of the club from Heffernan Park.
Nine years ago, Deirdre Whyte was handed a list of 24 girls who would like to play rugby and from there a great adventure has taken shape. However, it was a bumpy start according to Deirdre, the driving force behind the development of the game in Ballina.
“At the time, I was helping out PJ Molloy and Enda Jones with the Boys U12 team because my son was playing on it. Enda’s daughter Melanie came to me with a list of girls who wanted to try the game too and, to be honest, I didn’t know where to turn.
“There was no Girls Rugby in the club, in fact there was Girls Rugby in Connacht at that time and I had never played the game, so it was a challenge. The first thing we had to do was get balls, bibs etc, so I started running Teen Discos at the club and this helped greatly.
“Then we had to get someone to coach the girls and luckily we found Jacinta Kearney. She had played the game and was great with the girls.
“After a few weeks training, the girls were chomping at the bit for a game, but there were no teams in Connacht, so we didn’t know what to do. Then, I took my life in my hands and phoned the Gerry Ryan Show and suddenly I found myself on national radio looking for a Girls Rugby team to come to Ballina and play us.

“I got a call from a team in Cavan and they agreed to come and play us in Heffernan Park, but we were nervous about it and our nerves weren’t helped when they ran out for the game.
“They had beautiful pink jerseys, black shorts, black headbands and black leg warmers and looked so professional – our girls had borrowed a set of jersey from the boys and I must admit I nearly got sick and thought ‘what am I after doing here.’
“They were all over us in the first half and our girls were wondering what had hit them, but to their credit they decided to get stuck in and after half time I could see the fight and spirit in them and knew we were up and running, there was no going back!
“The following year, Westport Girls Rugby set up and finally we could get games. We had some great battles and friendships with Westport. We were learning and supporting each other. Our numbers grew and were were able to field an U16 and U18 Team.
“Over the past few years the great work of Connacht Rugby and Wendy Hickey has seen many other teams start to emerge and the competition is great. We have great sponsors, which enabled us to get our own two sets of Girls Jerseys. Supermacs in Ballina, Kieran Holmes Insulation, John Langan Construction and Tumble Jungle are all on board and this is very important.
“We’ve gone from strength to strength. Over the years, we’ve had sisters Mairead and Kayleigh Hopkins on the Irish U18 squad and they earned the first Irish Caps for the Girls Section of the club and are a very special part of our development.

Our Girls Only Minis team is a very important section in our club and has been the starting point for many of the girls moving through the youth system in Ballina! This season 2018-19 we are proud to say we can now field teams at Minis, U14, U16 and U18 level and we’re all looking forward 72 players and parents travelling to Cardiff in April on tour.
“We now have girls coming to us from all across our catchment area from Erris to Swinford and down into South Sligo. Recently we had 40 girls sign up for an introduction to the game on an Open Day in one of the local schools, St Mary’s, so the future is a very bright one.
“On a personal note I have enjoyed the whole challenge. We’ve had some great days and not so great days. I have seen many young ladies pass through the club, like the group who nine years ago sucked me into girls rugby who are now finished college and starting their working lives. I hope the very positive experience of being involved with Ballina RFC will see them back here again in the future as female coaches, referees or maybe even when they have their own daughters, they will bring them to rugby!