The end of the 2013/14 season has arrived, extended only for our to be confirmed representatives at this summer’s IRB Women’s World Cup and the remaining World and European Sevens tournaments.
While training increases for the elite minority, the rest of the province can look forward to a short rest period before the inevitable pre-season training and planning in a mere few weeks’ time. However, there’s the small matter of the annual awards season to navigate and with our clubs pushing boundaries like never before, there will be many achievements to celebrate over the following weeks.
Ruth O’Reilly (Connacht Club Player of the Year) and Clare Raftery (Connacht Senior Player of the Year) may have taken the accolades at last week’s Connacht Rugby awards, but their achievements are just a snapshot of the province’s growth and increasing competitiveness. Below are some of the highlights of Connacht Women’s Rugby this season –
New chapter begins for Connacht
One point from their interprovincial campaign may not seem like something to celebrate, but their draw against Ulster in December ended Connacht’s eight match losing streak and heralded a break in habit for the talented side. Bolstered by the experience of captain Ruth O’Reilly, Clare Raftery, and Emma Clery, the side was rejuvenated by an influx of new players such as Mairead Coyne, Edel McMahon and Mary Healy, and strengthened with the coming-of-age of key players Tanala Kehoe and Lisa McDonagh; their 3-try opening display against Munster a highlight, and an indication of what this team is now capable of.
Naoupu sets precedent for women’s club rugby
A mid-table women’s AIL club is not usually the first port of call for aspiring coaches with a professional playing background. Enter George Naoupu, Sportsground favourite and tactical mastermind who, in his first season at the helm at Galwegians RFC, guided the team to a second All-Ireland Cup title in three seasons with a pulsating 26-18 win over holders Highfield RFC. Given that only six of his current crop of players contested the 2012 final, and that seven squad members had only one season of rugby or less under their belts, makes this achievement all the more remarkable.
The rise and rise of Castlebar RFC
From seemingly nowhere, Castlebar RFC rampaged through their provincial season, claiming the Connacht League title in their first competitive season. While their run in the Connacht Invitational Cup came to an agonising end at The Sportsgrounds in March, losing 5-3 to Tullamore RFC, the Mayo ladies, led by the imperious Caroline Staunton, have set the benchmark for newly established clubs far beyond Connacht’s borders.
NUIG RFC see silver lining
The difficulty with intervarsity sports has traditionally been the high turnover of players once students graduate and leave academia behind. This has undoubtedly been a factor for the women of NUIG RFC, a highly organised outfit under the auspices of OLBC’s Simon Lawless and Luke O’Donnell in recent seasons. However, they realised their obvious potential this season, finally clasping their hands on national silverware, claiming the Kay Bowen Trophy in December, and leading the way for an extremely successful season for the club.
Innovative alliance secures rugby in the north-west
Women’s rugby can be a precarious venture, with even the most established teams threatened with immigration, impending motherhood, and a lack of new recruits. This was the situation facing Carrick-on-Shannon RFC and Longford RFC, who ended the season as the Canterbury Warriors RFC, an amalgamation of the remains of the two teams coached by Alan Portuby
and Damien Curley. Competitive from the outset, inflicting Castlebar’s only league defeat, they also claimed the Connacht Invitational Plate title in Dangan in March, a just reward for the group’s unflinching desire to play.
New Kids on the Block
….those kids being Ballinalsoe’s u-15 side, captained by Georgia Codyre, who claimed their age-group league and cup double this season in sublime fashion. Their defeat of Westport RFC, accustomed to provincial silverware, in the cup final demonstrated the growth of the game in the region, and the obvious talent and capabilities of these young athletes. Should this trend continue, one can only delight at the province’s future prospects.
Our girls in green
There might not have been another Grand Slam to celebrate but Alison Miller and Clare Molloy made history yet again this year, as part of the first women’s match to be played in the Aviva when Ireland steamrolled Italy to a bonus point victory. A World Cup awaits both (and perhaps a few more of their provincial colleagues) in August. Before then, Connacht fans can behold the growing talent of Sevens star Niamh ni Dhroma who, with interprovincial team mate Christine Arthurs, were part of the first Irish squad to compete at the Women’s Sevens World Series bringing them from Dubai to America to China in their quest for Olympic qualification. And with 16 year old Mairead Hopkins from Ballina earning her first taste if international action on the Irish Schools International team this season, for the time being at least, the future looks green.