Breaking new ground

sport1Fresh from playing for Ireland at the recent Rugby World Cup semi-finals, Ailis Egan, a Trinity alumna, spoke to Alicia Lloyd, our Sport Editor, about what it’s like to play the women’s game.

Ireland beat the All Blacks this summer. It’s not what you think. The women got there first. That said, I don’t think there is any point in wasting space here attempting to compare women’s rugby with the rugby that is played by men. Same sport, different game. One is professional, one is amateur. One has substantial financial backing, one has significantly less. One is established, one is emerging. While the Irish ladies forge their way in the old world that is the sport of rugby, they undoubtedly grasped the attention of the nation when they beat the four-time world champions in the first ever meeting between the sides.

The quality of rugby on display during this summer’s World Cup was at the highest level ever seen by this amateur sport. Despite the subsequent, disappointing performance against England, the girls in green’s display of organisation, sinew and courage is something that we should be proud of. They played a game remarkably more intelligent than the Black Ferns. Above all, what’s clear from talking to Egan is that they had the unshakeable belief that they could go all the way – they were intrepidly daring in their approach to the New Zealand game, without ever seeming audacious. This was evident in their domination of the breakdown and in the way they forced so many New Zealand errors. The Black Fern’s head coach, Brian Evans, was quoted as saying that the Irish girls “outmuscled us”, which says it all really. The mentality of this Irish team is fascinating. These women convey a mind-set that mirrors a professional outfit. Their determination evidently disregards their amateur status. These are the women representing our country.

Ailis Egan, Ireland’s starting tight-head prop, as a graduate of Trinity, is a rugby player that we can proudly claim as one of our own. She credits her dad and Trinity for first sparking her interest in the sport. Having signed up to a few sports clubs in first year (freshers take note), it was rugby that had her “hooked” after one training session with the girls. She specifically mentions her fondest memories of playing with Trinity at matches in College Park, especially on a sunny day, followed by a huge session in the Pav – a quintessentially ‘Trinity’ image. I ask her how she was attracted to the menacing place that is the front row. During her Trinity days, she actually spent most of her time at number eight or in the centre. However when former Irish hooker, Yvonne Nolan, told her that Ireland was in need of a few props, Egan jumped at the chance to fulfil the definitive goal – representing her country.

As a sports writer, I have never played rugby. Any knowledge I claim to have comes from the “complex art” that is being a supporter. It’s all about observation. Discussing rugby with Ailis then makes for intriguing conversation. She offers genuine insight into the old sport of rugby and a candid account of life as a woman whose time revolves around the game.

I’m interested to know how highly Egan values the use of analysis in rugby, considering the emphasis that is now afforded to its use both in the professional men’s game and in the women’s set up. While Ailis credits it as a vital part of the game, she offers curious insight for those of us who don’t play, in stating that it is important not to overly rely on analysis. “You play your best rugby by playing what is in front of you, ‘heads up’ rugby,” she says. “You cannot be too programmed as teams adapt from game to game and we have to remember that they have been analysing us.”

In the wake of Ireland’s stunning win over the Black Ferns, team captain, Fiona Coghlan, honoured the back-room staff for the game plan they put in place. Head coach, Philip Doyle, has evidently been hugely instrumental in the success of the team while also having a manifestly influential role in the mind-set that the girls cultivate. Doyle stepped down after the World Cup due to his business commitments and Egan draws attention to the void that he leaves to be filled. “He will be a massive loss as he has put in place the structures that have enabled us to get into the top four in the world,” she says. Ailis emphasises how she will miss his involvement on a personal level, Doyle having been pivotal to her development as an elite rugby player. “From a personal point of view I will definitely miss him. He gave me my first cap, took a chance on me and allowed me to develop into a prop on an international stage. I owe him a lot.”

Subsequent to his resignation, Doyle was vocal about the IRFU’s need to build on recent success by appointing a professional coach, which I’m intrigued to learn is the case for many of the world’s top nations. Why don’t we follow suit? By vocalising this matter, Doyle has surely stipulated that the demands of the game now require a full time coaching packet. Above all, this summer’s World Cup has demonstrated the elite level to which teams now play on the international stage. I ask Ailis about the extent to which she finds the demands of the game have increased since she first began playing. She specifically cites England, New Zealand and Canada as having set the bar very high. “Strength and conditioning as well as skill levels had to improve drastically to compete with the top teams in the world, and now that bar has risen again,” she says. “I personally enjoy the challenge and want to get the maximum out of myself and the squad, and we have yet to reach our potential.”

The fact that Egan believes that the team have not fulfilled their full potential is a promising indicator of budding goals and of further success yet to be attained. There is always work to be done. The England game is evidence of this fact. It wasn’t just the defeat to our Auld Enemy that was hard to take, but the lack of performance from what looked like a completely different team to the side that had beaten New Zealand. England were good, but worse than that, Ireland allowed them to be good. Their complete domination was a bitter pill, destroying our hopes of a World Cup final. The girls by no means shirk responsibility though. Their subsequent improvement against France, despite the result, was something they could be proud of, further proving the strength of their mental resolve. I wondered how they were able to move on mentally from such a lamentable performance. Ailis admits that it was very tough but is succinct in her description of how the girls put it behind them: “We were very honest with each other after the game, addressed the areas that needed working on and supported each other.”

Inevitably, there are some other questions, questions which are truly a different subject matter, that arise when talking about women’s rugby. This appears to be the plight of women’s sport, the unnecessary cross to bear, thrust upon female athletes. Discrimination, misconceptions, fallacies, judgement- are these part and parcel of playing an ‘old boys’ type sport? Is it ever just about the game? Or has the day come for us to move on and agree that male and female athletes are treated as equals? When it comes to the press, all evidence is to the contrary, I’m afraid.

I was recently put out to see an article in the Irish Times about Caroline Wozniacki’s momentous achievement of reaching the US Open semi-final with the words in the title “hell hath no fury like a top tennis player scorned”. The article accounted for her return to form since her infamous split with Rory McIlroy. Evidently, she can’t win a major quarter final without it being attributable to her love life. McIlroy managed to win two majors this summer without Wozniacki getting any of the credit. I don’t deny that Caroline brings some of this on herself, talking publicly about the split so frequently in terms of sport. This shouldn’t set the standard for female athletes though. Equality still needs to be pushed to the fore, to the top of the agenda. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the context of an article about women’s rugby that caused quite a stir this summer.

Ashamed as I am to have this name pass through the pages of Trinity News, Niamh Horan’s maladroit piece for the Sunday Independent drew attention to the fact that there are still people, journalists in particular, who are willing to create fallacies. Horan asserted that she was going to “shatter” our “misconceptions about women in the sport” of rugby. What misconceptions Niamh? She then proceeded to divulge the shocking revelation that some of these women even wear make-up. I don’t play rugby but as a supporter serious about the sport, I’m insulted. I don’t think any of my fellow supporters have ever considered these so called misconceptions in the first place. So I asked Ailis, a person who truly matters in this debate, if first of all, this article was even on her radar?  Of course it was. This issue is so prevalent in the world of women’s sport that it can’t be ignored.

When asked if she was insulted by the article, Egan gives a remarkable answer. “I think it was a poorly researched and written article that in no way reflects women’s rugby in Ireland,” she says. “But yet it generated a fair bit of publicity for us in a good way, as people then commented on our professionalism, athleticism and commitment – all the attributes that we are proud of and that we want to be recognised for.” Ailis’ comments are evidence that these women have broken down enough discriminatory barriers in the past few years to allow them to convert any negative publicity into a discussion about what’s really important to them – their ability as rugby players. Perhaps the times, they are a changin.

I also asked Ailis if she felt as though the team were afforded not just the support but the respect they deserve from their counterparts in the professional game. She immediately puts this to bed however and dismisses it as a point of interest. “Personally, I don’t look for recognition or respect from our counterparts. The respect of my teammates means an awful lot more”. It is worth noting, that publicly, a lot of high profile male players were hugely helpful, with their wide fan base, in gaining support for our girls in green.

Finally, I wanted Ailis’ perspective on the physicality of the sport, an issue that is ever gaining momentum. I wondered whether she had ever felt as though she was jeopardising her health for the sake of rugby- a question I would also like to ask the likes of Brian O’Driscoll. It turns out that her worst injury occurred while playing for Trinity, when she ended up with a broken leg and a dislocated ankle. She simply replies however, that “injuries are never a real consideration”. A true warrior then, a true rugby player.

Our now eminent women’s rugby team have emerged as a redoubtable force on the international stage. Who knows what the rugby gods have in store for Egan and her comrades? When asking what she would like to achieve above all else as a player of the women’s game, I was somewhat hinting at the idea of being a role model for female athletes. Egan, however, answered in purely rugby terms. “I have achieved a lot already, probably, to be honest, more than I ever dreamed. But in the next three years I would like to see Ireland win the Grand Slam again and win the World Cup in 2017.” For Ailis Egan, it’s simply all about the rugby.