We visited Railway Union a couple of weeks ago to find out how their preparations are going for what promises to be an interesting season.
We caught up with this Niamh Byrne to find out how the players have been coping with the restricted return to rugby.
Having Railway working more on their skills set, as well as looking to bring a more physical game this season, must have a few teams in the AIL worried!
We followed this up with an in depth interview with Railway’s Director of Rugby John Cronin who always has something interesting to say about the women’s game, this season being no different in that regard.
What have you been doing to prepare for the new season?
We’ve been busy enhancing our off field and implementing the performance rugby environment that the IRFU have asked the AIL clubs to do. Women’s AIL is now a franchise model and meeting operating standards is the criteria for being in the league, the same as England.
The IRFU want the AIL clubs to focus on high-level coaching, athletic development, medical support and analysis to develop players for the national side. There’s a lot in this and it requires a significant investment from the franchise clubs.
To that end, Jonathan Butler has come onto our coaching team as Technical Development Skills Coach. Jonny is a Stage 4 coach and has plenty of experience at Men’s AIL D1 with Trinity, as well as with Leinster, Irish Universities and Terenure College. We’ll have one group session a week dedicated solely to skill development, plus Jonny will work with individual athletes during the week. This is in addition to our two group pitch sessions a week.
Our coaching team of Andy Adams, Blaise Kenny, Jude Cleary and I remain, which I’m delighted with. I’m a strong believer in continuity being key for player development – building relationships, understanding the athlete, and seeing a pathway for the player that’s longer than just the current season is essential. It’s difficult for players to develop when a club has a new coach every season or sometimes multiple coaches a season, which has sadly has been a feature of the women’s game to date and is something we have to rectify.
Jamie Martin Grace is Head of S&C and he has been very innovative in the off-season conditioning in this Covid world. We’ve completed our initial pre-season S&C block and we are just starting our six-week program to our first league game. Jamie’s into “Big Rocks, Pebbles & Sand” and his “Big Rocks” for this group of athletes this year are conditioning, contact prep and speed.
Dr Cliodhna Nic Gabhann has come onto our Player Welfare team and will be our match day doctor. She will work with Professor John Ryan, Jamie and the rest of the Player Welfare team to ensure all our athletes are kept fit and healthy.
How has recruitment gone?
We’ve recruited pretty well in the off-season, with a really promising bunch of representative U18 graduates joining, some high-level crossover athletes of potential, and some experienced players coming in.
Coachability, work ethic and resilience will dictate how these players will go and it will be a step up for them. A few of them were telling me after their first few weeks that it was the most numbers they’ve experienced at a training session and that they’ve never played games at the pace of our training before. From what I’ve seen so far, they’ll be more than fine and will put a few of our more established players under pressure, which is exactly what we want.
We also have six experienced players who missed last season due back from injury, in Chloe Blackmore, Siobhan McCarthy, Meg Kendal, Emma Murphy, Juliet Short and Aoife Maher. I thought a few of them weren’t far off being capped given their form the previous season and hopefully they’ll recapture that. Given the league structure we won’t be rushing any of them back but once fully fit, they’ll be great additions.
As well as being positioned for a home AIL semi-final before last season was curtailed, our 2s won Leinster League Division 1. Those players have been developing well for the last three or four years. We used 46 players in 15 AIL games last year, so many of them have had a taste of the top league and will be pushing for places.
You’ve lost another player to England?
Yes, Ciara Cooney has left to join Cliodhna Moloney at Wasps and it shows once again that our biggest competitor is the English Premiership.
We need greater investment in the league and in the clubs to compete with England. We need more competitive games, even if that means fewer teams and some consolidation. We need to make the league competitive and put club support structures in place comparable to England to entice the ten or so Irish internationals back to play in the AIL.
Otherwise, in time, we’ll have all our international players playing in England and the domestic game here will be immaterial.
We actually aren’t that far away from having a league that can rival the Premiership. We produce phenomenal female athletes in Ireland, athletes that can match anything produced anywhere in the world. You see that with the eighteen Irish athletes who have chosen to go to Australia to play AFL last year and you see it in our top female athletes who are known by just their first name – Sonia, Katie, Annalise, Ciara, Rena, Cora, Derval, Natalya, Sanita, Ciara, Kellie, Valerie – you could go all day at this.
We just haven’t put in place the structures in rugby yet to entice the top Irish female athletes. They are choosing other sports in Ireland with structures that allow them to excel or choosing to head to Australia to play a sport they’ve never played before.
Or for some of our top rugby players, choosing to get the plane to England to play their rugby there.
It wouldn’t take much to get there. Enhancing and supporting this franchise model to have 20/25 high standard competitive games per year; increased media and promotion; ensuring a performance rugby model at each franchise to attract top level athletes to choose rugby; having a real distinction and acceptance of performance rugby, participation rugby and the appropriate pathways by all stakeholders; and ensuring release of Irish players similar to the way English players are released to play in their league.
A high level, high profile, high performance, well supported 8/10 team all island league with the opportunity to play for Ireland in two codes? What’s not to love? If you build it, the athletes will come.
Whilst the IRFU are understandably financially constrained at present, this will too will pass and it wouldn’t be a huge investment in the scheme what we are going through now.
How will you cope with International commitments?
Ireland 15s have a very full schedule this year, with the 2020 Six Nations to finish and the World Cup Qualifiers in December, which is 11 games in 23 weeks. As well as that, there are 14 camps. Given that schedule, I’m not expecting to see many of them.
The AIL has seen less and less Ireland 15s players in recent years, where the balance between camps and actually playing rugby is a point of contention for both the clubs and the players themselves.
Realistically, we have to plan without our Ireland 15s. We are delighted to develop the players, delighted to see them playing for Ireland, but we realise once they get there, we really won’t see that much of them on the field.
However, this is balanced somewhat with the return of our Ireland 7s players. The World Series is postponed until April 2021 and we will have our 7s until at least November and maybe a little longer.
The influx of the 20+ Ireland 7s players is fantastic for Energia and the club game – seeing Leigh flying down the wing for us, or Stacey and Eve in our backline, or Lucy Mulhall pulling the strings for Wicklow in their debut season.
We’ve found there is an adjustment for 7s athletes when moving to 15s. There are differences in both games – depth in attack, lines of running, the ruck, the types of tackle you are asked to execute, and dealing with a more congested field and less space – and it does take a while to adjust. However, they are phenomenal athletes and their core skills are exceptional, as you would expect of full-time professional athletes.
Who knows, if they can get their place in their club sides and get some exposure to 15s in the Energia Community Series, some of them might put their hands up for selection for the World Cup Qualifiers in December.
It’s our national team and we have to pick the best players available to represent us. If they are playing well at 15s and are available, then why not?