Claire Molloy RWC7s-300A Triple Crown. A Grand Slam. A debut Sevens World Cup…

2013 will eternally be remembered as a breakthrough year for Irish women’s rugby on the international scene with record after record broken, titles claimed for the first time, stars born on the pitch, and role models made.

Connacht’s Alison Miller and Claire Molloy will undoubtedly look back at the past twelve months fondly. Both were part of the storming XV’s side; Miller’s hat trick putting England to the sword in Ashbourne, while boosting her scoring haul to make her the Six Nations top try scorer. Meanwhile, Dangan native Molloy was one of Ireland’s leaders throughout the year, essential to the Grand Slam campaign, as well as captaining Ireland in its first Sevens World Cup in Moscow.

The renaissance of the women’s rugby sevens scene nationally has provided new avenues for talented players to represent their country – enter Connacht’s Claire Raftery and Edel Durkin, members of the Irish team which claimed gold at the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast in August; and Christine Arthurs and Niamh Ní Dhroma, who both earned their first caps this year during Ireland’s foray into the IRB Women’s World Sevens Series. Indeed the Road to Rio will certainly see more Connacht natives on tournament team sheets soon.

However, within the provincial borders Connacht women’s rugby has had an outstanding year in terms of vibrancy of competition as well as the breakthrough of a number of promising players.

The year started with the conclusion of competitions – a provincial league and cup final. Buccaneers RFC and Sligo RFC claimed these respective honours having dominated provincial competitions during previous seasons. Both teams’ efforts were rewarded with promotion to AIL status, competing in Division 2 and joining Galwegians as the province’s national league teams, a phenomenal return in a few short seasons.

CWL Final-300Though 2013 ended without silverware for the Division 1 outfit, Galwegians broke the mould this season with the recruitment of Connacht’s George Naoupu as head coach. The entry of a professional player into the women’s game in this capacity has not only rejuvenated the club but has arguably established a new sense of partnership within the rugby community.

Another Galway club, NUIG RFC, rewrote the script after claiming their first Intervarsity title in November, winning the IURU Kay Bowen trophy in awesome fashion – unbeaten and without conceding a solitary try.

On the same day NUIG claimed their milestone, another was also in the making. Established only last season, Castlebar RFC won their first Connacht League title at the first time of asking, overcoming a competitive Canterbury Warriors RFC at Ballyhaunis RFC. Warriors, an amalgamation of Carrick-on-Shannon RFC and Longford RFC, innovated admirably to contest this season in the face of a sharp drop in players at both clubs. While their story is one of success, it is a stark reminder of the often perilous situation many women’s teams face regularly.

The ever-growing underage scene kept clubgrounds busy at weekends, and culminated in the U-18 Interprovincial Series. The Connacht U18 side, captained by Becky Gavin, reaped the benefits of years of preparation and development within the province’s underage structure with a string of head-turning results. The formidable Leinster, their first opponents, may have been too strong but Connacht handed Ulster a commanding 33-5 defeat, and conceded a late try against Munster to draw 12-12. Their open style of play from the forwards, led by the talented Emer Murphy, and backs, bolstered by international Schools Sevens star Mairead Hopkins, signals a new degree of competitiveness which will unquestionably come to fruition in the near future.

One point from three matches may seem like an underwhelming result but for the Connacht Women’s Senior squad it too represents a new chapter in their history of interprovincial seasons. Gone are the days, even before an international side was established, when the women of Connacht claimed Interprovincial titles at their ease. Advances within the other provinces have consigned Connacht to winless seasons of late, but their draw to Ulster in December was a step towards fulfilling the vast potential within the squad’s ranks.

However, individual displays did not go unnoticed, and joining Miller and Molloy on this Six Nations squad is Connacht captain Ruth O’Reilly who returns to 15s action once more. More Connacht caps may be on the cards this season with Carol Staunton rejoining the elite 7s squad after a long injury layoff, and Sene Naoupu whose obvious talent should see her become a sevens mainstay once she qualifies to represent Ireland in a few short months.

2013 did not end with a whimper, but with an avalanche of announcements which will help cement the progress made over the course of the year. In recent weeks, it has been announced that the national team will play at the Aviva Stadium for their Six Nations clash against Italy, that Ireland’s Helen O’Reilly will referee during the tournament, and that the national 15s captain Fiona Coghlan has also been awarded the prestigious Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year against some very stiff competition.

The achievements of the 15s and 7s squads this year have helped the women’s game, and rugby in general, advance light years ahead and recent announcements are testament to what has and what can be achieved by supporters, coaches, development staff and managers, as well as players. It is with unbridled pride that Connacht Rugby can lay claim to having played a major part in this step forward.

With the tide of approval and support for women’s rugby impossible to resist, it will be hard to expect that 2014 will be any different from the unforgettable months that have just passed. The only question now is how far can we, together, realise our high hopes.

View 2013 Women’s Highlight Gallery here

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