Ire­land women’s World Cup woes

Ruth O’Reilly gives her ver­sion of events sur­round­ing Ire­land’s dis­ap­point­ing World Cup cam­paign

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gavin Cummiskey

To­day in Belfast marks the end for a special group of Ir­ish play­ers. After the sev­enth place play-off against Wales, many of the 30-some­things are ex­pected to re­tire. They re­main iron-willed to this bit­ter­sweet fin­ish.

Ruth O’Reilly has al­ready played her last game for Ire­land. First capped in 2012, she has been part of the set-up much longer. This World Cup was to be the Tralee woman’s re­ward after 15 years of sac­ri­fice and toil.

“Truthy Ruthy is what they call me,” O’Reilly be­gins, speak­ing from her Gal­way home hav­ing left camp last week with in­jury.

Un­var­nished, here’s her ver­sion of events.

“Every so often you have to re­mind your­self this is what we do for fun. One of the worst days was a Satur­day when we were train­ing in the In­sti­tute of Sport and the rain was com­ing in side­ways. Tom [Tier­ney] was coach­ing us on his own. Any­way, he had us ab­so­lutely killing our­selves run­ning and do­ing ‘burpies’ but at the end of it we had smiles on our faces, be­cause all of us got through it . . . well, we all cried but no one com­pletely lost it!

“It is a re­ally special group of peo­ple. Gen­uinely, the highs of win­ning that Six Na­tions in Scot­land or run­ning around Don­ny­brook after the French game [in Fe­bru­ary, those cou­ple of min­utes of ela­tion . . . and the craic that we would have to­gether!

“The ma­jor­ity of us are all on the same wave­length look­ing at what was hap­pen­ing out­side our con­trol.”

It al­ways seemed a strug­gle for the women to play rugby for Ire­land but the overnight train from Paris to Pau in 2012 put them firmly un­der the me­dia spot­light.

“The train issue was a f**k up and got plenty of pub­lic­ity at the time but we thought ‘Okay, they’ll start tak­ing us more seriously now.’ We had a great game down in Pau that day. Came pretty damn close to win­ning.”

A year later Fiona Coghlan cap­tained Ire­land to the Grand Slam.

“The play­ers were all but pro­fes­sional in how they ap­proached ev­ery­thing,” ex­plains O’Reilly. “You know the likes of Lynne Cantwell. An ab­so­lute rugby ge­nius on every level. It’s al­most a shame for her that she happened to be in a fe­male body be­cause she would have been a pow­er­house in rugby only she happened to be a woman.

“The pro­fes­sional at­ti­tude is an etiquette most of this team still have but it is some­thing that is be­ing slowly eroded.”

Un­bal­anced re­la­tion­ship

Why? How?

“Be­cause we are all in this un­bal­anced re­la­tion­ship. But we all want to play for our coun­try. We know the joy that that can bring. It is like a drug. Once you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced it you want more, you want to push your­self but you are at the mercy of other peo­ple’s opin­ions all the time.”

Their con­cern has al­ways been how much the IRFU re­ally care about the women’s game?

“Yeah, how much of a shit do they give? That goes down to club level. I am highly in­volved with Gal­we­gians. I’ve been highly in­volved in the com­mit­tee struc­tures of Con­nacht rugby. You are look­ing to get things done, to grow the game and the at­ti­tude is ‘Of course, we are re­ally sup­port­ive of our women’s team, sure we have one’.’

“Well done lads. To be hon­est, I pre­fer them stay­ing out of our busi­ness be­cause we run our side of the club, our team our way.”

After the Grand Slam and be­fore the 2014 World Cup in Mar­cousiss the play­ers felt com­pelled to stand up to the union – a united front led by Coghlan and Cantwell – stat­ing their prepa­ra­tions would be di­luted by switch­ing play­ers into the Sev­ens pro­gramme.

They got their way and went on to claim the most re­mark­able scalp in Ir­ish rugby his­tory by beat­ing then world cham­pi­ons New Zealand.

With the ar­rival of David Nu­ci­fora, in April 2014 as the IRFU’s first high per­for­mance di­rec­tor, there also came An­thony Eddy as the di­rec­tor of Sev­ens and women’s rugby.

“Prior to that there was no ap­petite for Sev­ens,” O’Reilly says. “To be hon­est there isn’t an ap­petite for Sev­ens in Ire­land even now.”

Ire­land’s for­mer coach Philip Doyle and as­sis­tant Greg McWil­liams were not asked to stay on de­spite lead­ing Ire­land to the World Cup semi-fi­nal. In their place, four months later, Tier­ney got the job in a full-time ca­pac­ity.

“Tom, to be fair, came in with a very pos­i­tive and in­clu­sive ap­proach,” says O’Reilly. “But be­cause he came so late, at Christ­mas be­fore the Six Na­tions, he didn’t have time to throw out the baby with the bath wa­ter so he worked with what he had.” Ire­land won the 2015 Six Na­tions. “Tom wasn’t known to me. I heard rum­blings about his time with Cork Con and peo­ple were say­ing ‘Oh, this is a bit odd.’ To me he seemed a de­cent coach.

“We were win­ning, that al­ways helps. His ap­proach was very sim­ple but it was ef­fec­tive for what we were play­ing against. There was al­ways talk about evolving but time kept slip­ping by and things didn’t change.

“We have had more hours of train­ing,” O’Reilly con­tin­ues. “Tom came out to the prov­inces and did more sessions with our groups in Gal­way, Dublin and Lim­er­ick. Quick hands. Pass­ing drills. Sim­i­lar to what Greg and Goose did but they were do­ing it in a very con­cen­trated pe­riod just be­fore the 2014 World Cup. But be­cause we were do­ing it in lit­tle pock­ets and not as a big group, the un­der­stand­ing of how far we can push each other in terms of our skill level never happened.

“Tom is not big on set-piece work so li­ne­out and scrums got min­i­mal at­ten­tion.” What was hap­pen­ing at train­ing? “We were do­ing a lot of fitness and that has shown over our per­for­mances. Tom fo­cused on starter plays.”

What pre­vi­ously made this Ire­land team so suc­cess­ful, be­sides raw tal­ent, was their spirit but the Sev­ens (who are pro­fes­sional) and non-Sev­ens play­ers seem to be at odds with each other.

“I don’t think we can level it en­tirely at the Sev­ens-15s di­vide,” says O’Reilly. “A lot of it was the ap­proach the guys took to de­vel­op­ing us as play­ers.”

Train­ing sessions en­tered the un­fa­mil­iar realm of one-up­man­ship.

“Some of us were ma­ture enough not to do this but there were cer­tainly play­ers, just to sur­vive, who ended up hav­ing to do that.

“There were a group of about 12 or so play­ers around from the year dot and it went against every grain in our bod­ies to see this hap­pen­ing.

“Also, be­cause we are strong women you can’t just tell us ‘Do that’. Well, you can and we prob­a­bly will do it but we will come back to you af­ter­wards, ‘Why, what’s the end goal?’ I know many coaches who have strug­gled with the change from coach­ing men and boys to girls and women. Es­pe­cially be­cause women tend to be older and more ma­ture when they come to rugby.

“Ini­tially, Tom and Dec­cie [O’Brien] dealt with that quite well. As much as it drives Dec­cie scatty he does take the time to ex­plain things.”

In Fe­bru­ary, the week be­fore the French game, Eddy redi­rected three play­ers – Han­nah Tyrrell, Ali Miller and Sene Naoupu – from the Six Na­tions squad to the Sev­ens cir­cuit in Las Ve­gas.

“The way Tom told it, and we can only believe him, is that he found out in a sim­i­lar manner to us.”

Yet Eddy, ap­pear­ing for an ex­plana­tory press con­fer­ence, said: “This was part of the high per­for­mance plan made sev­eral months ago and Tom was well aware of it, he is fine with it and fully un­der­stands it.”

O’Reilly: “Tom, he made us all feel that week that we had been hard done by – him as much as us. That’s what man­aged to produce the per­for­mance that day. We were all try­ing to prove a point.”

Ire­land beat France 13-10.

Vin­di­ca­tion

“But the re­sult ac­tu­ally had the op­po­site ef­fect as the guys could feel their de­ci­sion was vin­di­cated. This was a shame as it was the very thing we didn’t want to hap­pen but at the same time we were not go­ing to let France get the bet­ter of us be­cause we were sud­denly miss­ing three play­ers. We are big­ger than that.

“To me, Tom lost us then. What he said out to the pub­lic and what he said to us in­ter­nally were very dif­fer­ent. I un­der­stand he has to toe the party line but I thought he could have stood up for us more.”

Fear­ing a col­lapse at the World Cup six months later, the se­nior play­ers brought their griev­ances to the man­age­ment.

“We put to­gether a re­ally com­pre­hen­sive feedback doc­u­ment after the Six Na­tions and our player group went to man­age­ment with it. Sim­ple things. The lack of lead­er­ship. The fact we weren’t get­ting de­cent feedback in terms of how we could im­prove our per­for­mance. The physio cover. Not be­ing told sched­ules in time to ad­e­quately prepare time off work. It was all the stuff that seriously im­pacted and both­ered play­ers. The fact that Sev­ens play­ers were get­ting paid for be­ing in a camp and most of us were not.” Lit­tle changed. “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is one of their ma­jor prob­lems. You hear things through the grapevine. Even about us get­ting paid [compensation] for this World Cup. We only heard about it of­fi­cially at the camp in Fota Is­land a week be­fore the World Cup. If I had known that I could have made a de­ci­sion – ‘Okay, I can take un­paid leave for Au­gust and use my hol­i­days in July, which means I can be re­ally fo­cused on my train­ing and my re­cov­ery and be fresh go­ing into the World Cup.’ In­stead it was panic, train, re­cov­ery, train, work, work, work – try and be a de­cent em­ployee – and in­stead go into the World Cup ab­so­lutely knack­ered.

“It seems like they never get things signed off un­til the very last minute.” What about the fitness of Ni­amh Briggs? “God love her,” O’Reilly replies. “The dy­namic be­tween Ni­amh and man­age­ment and Ni­amh and the squad has been an issue for quite some time. I think with this in­jury and her in­abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in the train­ing the rest of us were do­ing made that even harder. I can un­der­stand some of the ra­tio­nale be­hind not pulling her sooner than they did.

“The arse would have fallen out of a lot of stuff in the run up to the World Cup had she been pulled sooner but from our point of view there is no hope in hell she is go­ing to be fit enough to train or par­tic­i­pate. No way.”

Boiled over

Even­tu­ally, when frus­tra­tions boiled over, O’Reilly took a stand.

“In July after our train­ing camps with Ja­pan, the IRFU had done a review of Tom over the course of that week – a gen­eral ap­praisal of his coach­ing tech­niques. Off the back of that, ap­par­ently, the feedback was the play­ers needed to take more own­er­ship of the train­ing sessions and our style of play, rather than just be­ing told what to do. It made sense but in July it is a bit late to change the whole ethos and style of man­age­ment.

“Any­way, a week later Tom horsed out a few emails look­ing for us to put to­gether our play­book and a dossier on Aus­tralia and Ja­pan: Go through all the video anal­y­sis, which is a big ask as we are all split up around the coun­try and we were all work­ing and try­ing to train so were do­ing this on our time off.”

So, the play­ers were asked to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for the game plan a month out from the World Cup?

“Yes. We ac­tu­ally got our act to­gether, on email, got a lit­tle play­book to­gether for Aus­tralia and Ja­pan but they were never used. Never dis­cussed as a group.

“A week later he was back on look­ing for us to put to­gether the train­ing plan for the Satur­day ses­sion to see what at­tack options we wanted to run against France. And he wanted that the fol­low­ing day.”

O’Reilly said in a group email, to play­ers and coach, that this re­quest was un­ac­cept­able as it fell un­der the coaches’, not the play­ers’, re­mit. Tier­ney re­sponded to the group that she did not need to at­tend the camp that week­end.

“I was in a ter­ri­ble state. Mad as hell mostly. We don’t mind do­ing all these things but your week is so finely bal­anced try­ing to fit in ev­ery­thing else. After a hard week­end train­ing you have to go to work for eight hours on the Mon­day and get in some re­cov­ery time and video anal­y­sis. Your part­ner, your fam­ily want to see you. You are up Tues­day morn­ing for a gym ses­sion, train­ing that evening, skills on Wed­nes­day . . . so your time is re­ally fi­nite. Add one or two things into that and your whole week goes KOWHALLOP!

“We spoke on the phone that day and our re­la­tion­ship since then has been pretty dire . . . He had cer­tainly lost the group by then, if not be­fore then.”

There are sto­ries of play­ers buy­ing their own boots, re­cov­ery skins, pro­tein shakes – was the squad com­pen­sated ad­e­quately?

“I have a great job, I am well paid for what I do, I work bloody hard for it, but it means money isn’t some­thing that keeps me up at night. But I have had the same pair of boots for the past three years. The only thing I have got from the IRFU is the Can­ter­bury kit I wear when I am on duty and the pro­tein pro­vided when do­ing IRFU sessions in the Sports­ground.

“I am prob­a­bly in the last group of peo­ple who can have a proper grown-up job and still do this.”

The squad reached out to the play­ers union – Rugby Play­ers Ire­land – with O’Reilly com­mend­ing the sup­port of­fered to Con­nacht play­ers by sports psy­chol­o­gist Dr Deirdre Lyons.

“The way they [the IRFU] have the play­ers in the Sev­ens set-up they are not par­tic­u­larly able to stand up for them­selves. Same for some 15s girls. It com­pro­mised our abil­ity to pe­ti­tion through RPI to the IRFU with col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing power in any shape or form.”

Sys­temic flaws

Re­mark­ably, morale was solid en­ter­ing the World Cup.

“Most of us knew there were sys­tem­atic flaws in the struc­ture. But it was my first World Cup after God-knows-how-many years try­ing. You are pumped. And there was an in­ter­nal ex­pec­ta­tion that after battling through prob­lems in the en­vi­ron­ment that we could keep that go­ing for one last hur­rah.

“Un­for­tu­nately there were too many ob­sta­cles to sur­mount with just bloody-mind­ed­ness. We can’t level all the re­spon­si­bil­ity at Tom. We as play­ers didn’t per­form. Our con­fi­dence just isn’t there. If you haven’t repped stuff out on the train­ing field it can­not just come out in a game.”

The re­cent IRFU AGM put ¤500,000 aside for the women’s game – but O’Reilly sees no clear long term plan for the 15-a-side game.

“The guys in the blaz­ers and fancy ties need to de­cide if this is some­thing they are se­ri­ous about. If not, fine. We will fig­ure out how we man­age it our­selves. We will make the most out of it and keep fight­ing.

“There is so much catch­ing up now to do with the other na­tions. The tour­na­ment itself has been re­ally well-run. What was lovely for me dur­ing the two weeks in UCD was bump­ing into vol­un­teers. There wasn’t one per­son I didn’t half-know. And all there off their own time. I think that sums up what happened to this team. A reliance on vol­un­teer spirit, on pas­sion can only get you so far.”

O’Reilly is talk­ing about the need for coach­ing re­sources at all lev­els.

“If we want to grow the game in Ire­land, if we want to com­pete, we need to be­come a pro­fes­sional out­fit. End of.”

Asked to com­ment on a num­ber of is­sues raised in this in­ter­view, the IRFU re­sponded on Fri­day: “The IRFU per­form a tour­na­ment review after all men’s, women’s and Un­der 20s cam­paigns. Man­age­ment, play­ers and key sup­port staff will be part of the review process.”

‘‘ Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is one of their ma­jor prob­lems. You hear things through the grapevine ... In­stead it was panic, train, re­cov­ery, train, work, work, work – try and be a de­cent em­ployee – and in­stead go into the World Cup ab­so­lutely knack­ered

Ire­land head coach Tom Tier­ney speaks to his squad after their de­feat to Aus­tralia in last Tues­day’s fifth place play­off semi-fi­nal in Belfast.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: INPHO/DAN SHERI­DAN

Below: Ruth O’Reilly, part of the Ir­ish in­ter­na­tional set-up since 2012.

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