Alumni tales – Kathryn Dane on why the sky is the limit for Irish women’s rugby

The scrum-half discusses balancing a professional life with her demanding sporting career and the growth of the women’s game in Ireland

Rugby can punish both the body and mind. However, the women’s sport faces an additional challenge: unlike men’s rugby, it is still played at an amateur level, even in the international arena. This requires many of the game’s most notable high-performance athletes to balance their professional careers with a demanding training regime. Kathryn Dane, who made her international debut in the 2019 Six Nations Championship, is thankful that her employers allow her the freedom to play rugby at the highest level for her native province, Ulster. “I work as a physiotherapist in a private practice, FFS on Leeson Street,” said Dane. “They are incredibly supportive of my rugby endeavours and, as such, I can take the time I need within my working week to best prepare myself for my rugby performance.”

The continued improvement of Dublin University Football Club (DUFC) comes as no surprise to the Ulster number nine: “I do feel that the quality and standard of coaching has definitely improved over the last few years which has, in turn, improved the playing standards and success of DUFC women.” Dane also credits the work of the male members of DUFC in promoting the women’s game on campus. 

Dane is not the sole DUFC alumna on the Irish team, as Linda Djougang also made her debut for Ireland last year. Quick to highlight several notable names, Dane praises the club’s key role in promoting the women’s game in Ireland: “Trinity has produced a number of elite female rugby athletes such as Ailish Egan, Neve Burn, and Elise O’Byrne White to name a few. These women are the trailblazers for DUFC women’s rugby as well as the women’s game in Ireland. Trinity Scholarships have helped these women flourish both on and off the pitch.”

The widespread promotion of the women’s game has yielded results with ‘massive increases in match attendance, female rugby participation and media coverage’.”

Irish women’s rugby is continuing to go from strength to strength, and Dane is delighted to see how it has captured the imagination of supporters in Ireland. She attributes “increased participation, media coverage, and attendance at games [along with] improved playing standards and world rankings for the Ireland women” to this promising popularisation of women’s rugby in the country. The fact that Ireland hosted the 2017 Women’s World Cup has raised its profile considerably and Dane argues that this, along with initiatives such as the 20×20 campaign (a nationwide campaign to increase media coverage, female participation, and attendance in women sport by 20%), is evidence that the widespread promotion of the women’s game has yielded results with “massive increases in match attendance, female rugby participation and media coverage”.

Dane has plenty of opportunities to improve every facet of her game, as she is teammates with Ireland vice-captain Sene Naoupu, and is coached by former Ireland out-half Nora Stapleton. “Sene has been massively influential in the progression of my own game, sharing the pitch with Sene has really brought my game management and skills on, she leads by example and is really invested in assisting the development of her fellow teammates,” she says. It’s rare that athletes get to share a pitch with their sporting idols, but Dane is grateful to have had that privilege while playing with Stapleton: “We played rugby together at Old Belvedere and now she is our coach. She was my number 10 and taught me everything I know about passing, game management and box kicking. Her meticulous attention to detail made her one of the best 10s in the world stage and the best leader and mentor for my playing career. It is a shame we couldn’t play in the green jersey together.”

“She also had to endure the stress that came with juggling academic responsibilities while putting on the green jersey.”

Navigating an international rugby career whilst also working full-time has posed plenty of challenges for the Enniskillen native. However, she also had to endure the stress that came with juggling academic responsibilities while putting on the green jersey. “Additionally coping with the stress of trying to complete final year Physiotherapy in TCD whilst competing in the 2019 Six Nations” saw her “submit [her] dissertation the day before starting against France”. That being said, the camaraderie of her teammates made her journey much less daunting, especially with the resident jokers of the training pitch and dressing room by her side: “Lindsay Peat is probably the biggest joker, you don’t know what she is going to come out with next! In all fairness, all the girls are savage craic!”. Understandably, she still looks back fondly on her first-ever start in a number nine jersey for Ireland: “I played the full game, it was high tempo and very joué style rugby which is my favourite.”

Even now as a graduate, Dane endeavours to show support for her former DUFC teammates: “I definitely enjoy popping down to college park to support the girls. On the occasions that I cannot make games, I follow the match reports on Instagram or Twitter.”

The women’s game, both nationally and internationally, has not yet reached the professional level of men’s rugby but Dane has confidence in the Irish Rugby 

Football Union’s ability and commitment to ensure the women’s game continues to develop and thrive: “I think the IRFU are doing everything in their power at present to support us and promote player welfare through expert medical services, the Rugby players Ireland supports and the world-class playing facilities.” Yet it is not just the playing authorities in Ireland that have a role to play in the promotion of women’s rugby. She acknowledges that a greater engagement from all areas of the game is also needed. When asked about how the welfare of players could be improved, she suggests that “Until we receive greater media coverage and sponsorship we might sustain greater financial support in order for us to take more time off work for rugby.”

“Dane is ambitious about the future of the game and is not content for the sporting environment to remain the way it is currently.”

Despite the rapid development of the women’s game, Dane is ambitious about the future of the game and is not content for the sporting environment to remain the way it is currently: “I would love to see Irish women’s rugby go professional. From a performance perspective, we are growing year on year with a very young side so it will be exciting to see us in five years time, we have serious potential with youngsters like Beibhin Parsons.” With players as passionate as Kathryn Dane, women’s rugby in Ireland is in safe hands; the Girls in Green evidently have plenty to offer.

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn is an Economics and Politics student, and a Contributing Writer for Trinity News.