BY STELLA MILLS
Imagine pulling on an international Jersey to play against one of the best teams in the world on Sunday, only to go back to work on the Monday, talk about a comedown.
That’s the current reality for the Irish squad, who took a serious thumping from a dominant English contingent at Welford Road on Sunday in round four of the TikTok Women’s Six Nations. The Irish team were flown back to Ireland on Sunday evening, to get back to their full-time jobs, whereas the English squad are now afforded the time to rest, recover and recharge ahead of their clash against France.
That, in my eyes, is the key difference between the professional and unprofessional squad. It’s not about throwing money at a problem; it’s about giving these players the time to recover.
Standing on the side-lines watching the match unfold, I felt bittersweet. Whilst its good to see the growth of the game result in record breaking crowds, a part of me also felt an element of sadness for the Irish squad.
It didn’t feel like a fair fight, and when you compare the resources put into both squads, this becomes blindingly obvious.
How are we at a point in this competition where we have players going back to their full-time jobs on a Monday morning on crutches due to injuries sustained in the game?
Immediately after the match social media became alight with calls for professionalisation of Irish players, with some heavy pressure now being put on the IRFU to put some form of contracts in place for the 15’s set up.
Currently, England are the only fully professional side in the competition, and this professionalisation has been years in the making, so arguably the squad are already miles ahead of any of the other five teams within the TikTok Women’s Six Nations.
Just to be clear here, although the spotlight is shining hard on the IRFU right now, other unions should not go unchecked. It’s not exactly clear what set up Scotland have with contracted players, as no definitive information has been made available. Interestingly, Sarah Bonar has been awarded elite athlete status from the RAF which will allow her to concentrate on rugby full time, but it’s not exactly clear what her non-serving teammates are given.
However, before we jump the gun and throw money at the problem, I would like to call on the powers that be to carefully consider the right way forward, a way that is a sustainable solution and not a quick PR fix.
It’s not about the money, because let’s be honest any amount given to player’s isn’t going to be ground-breaking, it’ll just be enough to survive on, but that’s a discussion for another day. What it is about, is giving players the opportunity to have a fair fight in this competition.
We are talking about athletes, athletes who need time to recover, time not just to train as a squad on pitch, but also time off pitch to strategize and to discuss in depth what needs to be done to facilitate improvements and move forward.
You simply can not expect teams to progress without these allocated resources, it’s an impossible task that no amount of passion, pride or grit will allow to happen.
There are simply not enough hours in the day for players to have a full-time career, and play rugby to a good, competitive standard.
That being said, the process of moving from an unprofessional outfit to a professional squad must not be rushed. We have already seen cracks in the movement towards semi-professional contracts, with certain players being awarded contracts only to be overshadowed by non-contracted players.
The contracted status, if it is to be a semi-professional one, must be flexible to suit the needs of the team. The agreements have to be agile enough to reward good player performance, but that in itself is a problem, because where do you draw the line? And, who makes these decisions?
One thing to have become abundantly clear since the start of this campaign is if you invest in a team, if you put money, time, resources and effort into a team, they will improve. Unions should, and will, be looking to the English model as a blueprint to follow.
It will now, in my opinion, be a case of waiting to see what unfolds in the future in terms of professionalisation. Hopefully union will take the needs and considerations of players into decision making processes, but who knows with this game.