Rugby has long been a key Irish sport. While many would argue that GAA is the country’s first sporting love, there’s no denying that Ireland is both exceptional – and exceptionally taken with – rugby. In the men’s game, the team is going through a relatively mediocre period of their history as they recover from the retirement of a number of legendary players, but they recently turned over World Champions and traditional bogey team New Zealand for the first time in their history. They’re a constant threat in the Six Nations, Europe’s top-tier rugby tournament.
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The women’s game, while still a little behind, is rising at a mighty rate. This year’s Six Nations showdown – which saw Ireland host England on St Patrick’s Day – was both televised and played out in front of a packed stadium in Donnybrook, a contest that the World Cup favourites England won, but from which Ireland took no little credit. The ladies’ team, in fact, has been in the public consciousness to a far greater extent since they won an unexpected Grand Slam (undefeated championship) in the same tournament in 2013, and then came out on top in 2015 too.
Despite the rise in popularity, the RFU (England’s governing body) recently announced that the England women’s squad would not have their contracts renewed, effectively ending funding for XVs players and choosing to focus on the side’s Sevens set-up. It’s a decision that has come as a shock to the players, particularly after taking into account the fact that these women are the reigning world champions.
In contrast to the RFU’s decision, there is fast-growing enthusiasm currently showing in World Cup ticket sales. The expanded UCD venue – which will see punters able to drift between games as the group stages play out, with three back-to-back games on each pitch – has all but sold out at the time of writing. Similarly, events in Belfast – particularly finals day – are looking likely to be difficult to attend. Both cities have substantial backgrounds with the sport, with Dublin the home of Leinster (men’s European Champions in 2009, 2011 and 2012) and Belfast the home of Ulster (men’s European Champions in 1999).
In the women’s finale, they’ll be plenty of rugby to watch, not least because every team is guaranteed four games, rather than the three that the pool groups of four teams might suggest. Even the team that finishes last will go on to face teams that have struggled in other groups for a place in a minor final, while the top-tier action will take place between three group winners and the second place side that most impresses. Technically, these knockout tiers come about by a ‘seeding’ system – essentially an amalgamation of the groups’ final standings to decide who goes forward into which stage – though tournament realities dictate that the three group winners are all but certain to progress, alongside the most impressive second place side.
Going into the tournament, that final four is widely expected to include the likes of England and New Zealand, with Canada also seen as likely to progress. The bookies have Ireland on a knife edge when it comes to reaching the semi-finals, ranking the hosts alongside France and Australia as likely the last four sides, but the home support is expected to be substantial and voluminous. The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) insists that their side is the best-prepared Irish outfit in history, and the hosts are certainly not a team that have been pushovers in the past. Some of their core players, including captain Niamh Briggs, returned from injury in time for kick off.
As for those travelling to Ireland? The IRFU, responsible for organising the tournament, is determined to make it one to remember for those who’ve been lucky enough to snap up those gold-dust tickets, and they have admitted that they have an eye on future tournaments off the back of success here.
Tournament director Garrett Tubridy said of plans for the event: “All the Ireland games will be on TV, and it’ll introduce the sport to a whole new generation. Programs are being put in place to take advantage of the increased interest we’re hoping to see, to have a knock on effect. It’s all about participation.”
“We feel a responsibility beyond rugby to make sure this competition is a success,” Tubridy added. “We want people in other sports to see what we do and think if Ireland can host a Women’s Rugby World Cup to that level, we want our federations to do the same for our sport. We’ve opened up connections to other sports. We’re very conscious of taking advantage of this moment, and giving the chance for other sports to capitalise on it.”
So is women’s rugby a thing in Ireland? This summer, with tournament fever in full flow, it’s not just a thing. It’s the thing.