I caught up with four members of the Ulster Women’s Under 18 Inter Provincial Grand Slam Squad over the weekend in an attempt to find out the story behind an exceptional group of young players as they begin the transition into senior rugby.
Six of the players, Leah McGoldrick, Brittany Hogan, Vicky Irwin, Storm Cobain, Dolores Hughes and Hannah Beattie are already training with the Ulster Women’s Senior Squad and, this time, we caught up with Irwin, Cobain and Beattie who were joined by the Under 18’s captain, Neve Jones, who hopes to start training with the senior team in a couple of months after she turns eighteen.
The girls came into rugby by a variety of routes, Hanna Beattie showing her competitive nature by wanting to match her twin brother in the sport. The others had tried other sports such as netball, hockey and even cricket but as Irwin said it was the camaraderie and friendship on the rugby field that got them hooked. Interestingly though, for such a driven group none stated that it was the comparitively short path to international honours that the sport affords, though, when pushed, all expressed a desire to pull on the green shirt, though, at the moment, just playing rugby is the main thing.
Things got serious for the group early in their careers as they were all selected for Regional Development Squads and with extra training twice a week the other sports and interests went out the window fairly quickly. When asked about sports women that have influenced them they couldn’t have picked three harder working players in New Zealand’s Portia Woodman alongside Ulster and Ireland’s Ashleigh Baxter and Claire McLaughlin, with the IRFU’s Women’s Rugby Development Executive, Nora Stapleton, also singled out for the advice and guidance she has given over the years.
Even when asked about pre match rituals the girls were still impressively obsessive with Cobain having a list of must do’s so long that it’s a wonder she has time to actually fit in a match! I did get an answer here that I haven’t heard before, with Jones insisting she always puts on her mascara before a game, maybe something fellow hooker Rory Best should try! In my day though I’d have been more inclined to follow the ritual of Irwin and Beattie which involved eating jelly beans.
Their future hopes for Women’s rugby in Ulster were telling, ranging from the desire for every club to have women’s teams ranging from under 12’s through to a senior side and this potential growth area is something that clubs should really take on board. However the wish that Irish women players get paid is maybe more of a short term goal, with England Women setting the benchmark here.
The girls were quick to point out that huge strides have been made with the women’s game over the last few years, culminating, for this group at least, in the recent inter provincial series, but there was also a genuine sense of frustration as to how far they have still to go, with the the girls looking forward to the day that the men’s and women’s game is treated equally at all levels.
When asked about the main obstacle to their own personal development the amount of travel to and from training sessions was the main problem with the girls spending six to eight hours on the road each week. “It’s hard to balance rugby and school.”
Do you have any interests outside of rugby? No every day is a rugby day was the reply though, thankfully, when pushed they did admit to having other interests though very limited time to enjoy them.
This time next year all four hope to be playing in the AIL for an Ulster club which highlights how limited their options are, there currently being the only one side in the province that can offer this. Of course other Ulster clubs could put in a charge for promotion, which I personally would love to see. There’s now a potential stream of talented young players coming into the senior game over the next few years so perhaps the timing is right to make that push.
Having followed the women’s game for the last ten years I have to congratulate Ulster Rugby in putting in place the the underage system of Regional Development Squads, and linking it to the Athlete Performance Programme, which has produced a group of players who have shown the drive and commitment to go far in their chosen sport.
However, they now face their toughest challenge yet if they are to continue their progression.