Irish rugby’s leading lady

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Irish rugby’s leading lady thumbnailFiona Coglan, who was a special guest at Armagh Rugby Club last week pictured with Irish rugby legend, Brian O’Driscoll

WHEN the history of Irish women's rugby is written few will quibble with the characterisation of Fiona Coghlan as the influential frontwoman who led what has been a remarkable revolution on and off the field.

Coghlan captained Ireland to that historic women's Grand Slam success in 2013 and her girls in green famously followed up by beating the seemingly invincible New Zealand at the World Cup in France less than 18 months later to reach the semi-finals under Philip Doyle.

Ireland's sensational 17-14 triumph in Marcoussis was simply the biggest upset in international women's rugby history considering the Black Ferns hadn't lost a World Cup match since 1991.

By contrast the Irish had never even won a single game in the northern hemisphere's premier competition until overcoming Spain - subsequently replaced by Italy to mirror the men's competition - in the 2003 Six Nations.

A certain Coghlan had won her first cap that day in Madrid as a front row replacement but she couldn't have envisaged back then that she'd be leading Ireland to a Championship clean sweep within a decade.

Dublin-based schoolteacher Fiona retired after the following August's wonderful World Cup campaign with 85 caps to her name - a tally only bettered by her erstwhile vice-captain Lynne Cantwell - but three years on Ireland's most successful skipper ever remains a respected figurehead for the sport with an established public profile.

It would also have been inconceivable back when she started that any Irish rugby woman would one day find herself in demand on the corporate or celebrity circuits, but Coghan's commitments even now are testament to the transformative effect of her team's outstanding success.

Over recent years she has accumulated an impressive portfolio of endorsement deals, official ambassador roles, speaking engagements, personal appearances and media assignments including rugby punditry for RTE, BBC and the Irish Independent.

"The girls slag me that I'd go to the opening of an envelope but it isn't about self-promotion for me.

It's always an honour to be given the chance to go out and tell the story of how we (the Irish team) achieved what we did and about the culture we had in the group," she explains. She credits team spirit and the right mentality as significant factors in that famous upset of New Zealand "which was huge and shocked everyone else but was a result we were actually confident we could achieve.

"We felt if we were with them by the hour mark we 'd win because we were fitter and everybody bought into the belief and gave complete commitment to each other. We had to dig deep but the flow went with us somehow and we answered everything they had to throw at us. "Coming into the tournament we'd been focused on the opening game against the USA, a strong women's rugby nation who had beaten us in the previous World Cup, and after that there was only a four-day turnaround until New Zealand.

"All credit to the management for getting us in the right frame of mind to overcome New Zealand as well as devising a good gameplan. People thought we would struggle in the scrums but thanks to our scrum coach Peter Bracken's work we were actually able to dominate."

Nobody could claim Coghlan doesn't deserve to be dining out on those heroic Irish successes or that she hasn't earned every accolade coming her way having fought the good fight in the green jersey for so long not least in those lean early years in the shadows with sparse resources and minimal support.

There's always something more to be ambitious about but so much has changed since Coghlan made her debut and she sometimes has to pinch herself when reflecting on just how far Irish women's rugby has come.

It was Coghlan's generation that made the big breakthrough at international level but she has great respect for passionate pioneers like her namesake, a captaincy predecessor and fellow Ireland legend, Fiona Steed, who paved the way. "I've great admiration for what those women did - although there is still room for further progress, the barriers back then were just unbelievable.

Things had improved by the time I began playing for Ireland in 2003 and thereafter it was one small step forward at a time. "The (15-a-side) girls are still amateur now, which is maybe a bugbear considering some of the competing nations will have fully professional squads at this World Cup, but being under the IRFU unlike in the old independent days means women's rugby being much better resourced including access to support services and so forth."

Interestingly, having returned to her sporting roots with the Clontarf ladies gaelic team since international rugby retirement, Coghlan praises the 'good job' the LGFA and Camogie Association have done but is convinced that full integration with the GAA would benefit both female codes. A full forward who helped her club Clontarf reach Dublin's Intermediate decider by beating Clann Mhuire 3-16 to 2-5 in last week's semi, Coghlan's gaelic comeback has been enjoyable but something of a culture change.

"I hadn't played for a decade so it was a challenge going back to the game after so long and it was also an adjustment coming from international sport to an environment where maybe the bar is set lower in terms of acceptable excuses for missing training, though we have been going at this club championship seriously," says the 36-year-old. "Not having much pace is a struggle when you're playing gaelic football but I suppose I try to bring other transferable strengths to the environment. It has been interesting and I must say that the talent coming through in Dublin is just unbelievable.

"That's probably because a lot of these girls have been playing gaelic football from they're four years of age and it's phenomenal to see their skill level, speed and reading of the game."

Currently women's rugby can't compete with that thriving nursery system never mind sheer scale of grassroots game - "there are 10 ladies (gaelic) football leagues going in Dublin alone on Wednesday nights" - and Coghlan hopes that one spin-off of the forthcoming World Cup will be more girls getting the chance to 'give it a try' at an early age. "Hosting this tournament is fantastic for the Irish team but it's also important the country capitalises and I know Nora Stapleton (the IRFU's Women's Rugby Development Manager as well as Ireland's outhalf) has various legacy programmes in place to increase numbers and develop pathways for future talent."

Spreading the women's rugby gospel is still much needed and there's nobody better qualified for the evangelist job than the engaging, articulate, credible Coghlan who repeatedly proved herself at the highest level as an uncompromising player and wonderful leader.

A warrior with exceptionally composed presence who brought absolute belief to the Irish team, Coghlan is now a compellingly passionate ambassador for rugby and a valuable advocate for women's sport at a time of palpable progress with power to add. The World Cup coming to Dublin and Belfast on the back of Ireland's success at the last tournament in between two Six Nations titles in three seasons seems like the perfect platform for showcasing women's rugby in this country to an unprecedented extent.

"Doing the Grand Slam and beating New Zealand at the last World Cup created a significant increase in interest from media and got the sporting public behind us, so to then be hosting the next tournament is a huge bonus in trying to build on that and keep pushing forward." Although she hung up her rugby boots three years ago, Fiona - whose twitter followers will know has recently taken up playing golf - admits that the hype around the imminent tournament, which starts next Wednesday, is causing a few predictable pangs of fairly theoretical retirement regret.

"It's tough, for you'd always want to recapture that buzz of running out to represent your country at a World Cup and playing one on home soil is fantastic for the current team, but I had my time in the green jersey and have many amazing memories to savour. "As someone who has been involved in the sport for so long I'm just genuinely excited about this tournament which I think this country will host and support very well and like everyone else I'm hoping the Irish side delivers the successful campaign they're capable of. "I'm really looking forward to seeing just how much the game has grown since the last World Cup in terms of the number of fans and things like TV rights and other commercial aspects," enthuses the WRWC official ambassador.

As Ireland's regular loosehead for more than a decade, Coghlan held her own scrumming down against international rugby's most grizzled props yet off-field she presents a much softer face for a sport plagued by tiresome stereotyping. In town for a corporate dinner at City of Armagh rugby club last week, Coghlan was looking glamorous and distinguished in an elegant navy dress when she spoke to the Ulster Gazette on the fringes of a women's sporting solidarity photoshoot to promote the forthcoming World Cup.

Her stylish high heels, perhaps surprisingly slender legs and strikingly slim hands are all antidotes to the stereotypical prop image but then this is a sportswoman who has broken many moulds in her time. Ireland's transformation from whipping girls to success under Coghlan's captaincy has been rewarded with improved media interest and RTE starting to show Six Nations matches live has generated unprecedented exposure for women's rugby in recent years.

"Having the Six Nations televised live has been a big boost and it's great that the Irish matches at this tournament will be broadcast on RTE. I think they do rugby really well and have enthusiastically embraced the women's game more recently," re - flects the channel's co-commentator Coghlan.

Coghlan's heart would obviously love Ireland, currently ranked fifth in the world, to go all the way but the hard-headed analyst in her finds it hard to make a case for the hosts repeating previous victories over either holders England or New Zealand, the pair she believes will contest the final at Kingspan Stadium on August 26.

"I think only one team will reach the semi-finals from Ireland's group so our girls will have to win all three games against Australia, Japan and France.

No disrespect to the Aussies and Japanese but I see the French as the biggest threat, though Ireland can draw confidence from a galvanising victory over them in this year's Six Nations. "Squad depth could be a concern especially with such an intense schedule of matches every four days and not much scope for rotation, but if things go well Ireland are certainly capable of reaching the semi-finals in Belfast.

"Perhaps there's added pressure as hosts and increased external expectations on the back of past success but we've experienced players who can handle that and hopefully the home crowds will be a big help. "I suppose in ways there is unprecedented pressure on Ireland this time but they're in a privileged position to be playing a World up at home and this team has attracted an increasing support base over recent years. "Things have come a long way from when we just had family and friends on the sideline.

There were over 6000 in Donnybrook for the Grand Slam decider in March and the growing base of loyal fans not only reflects Ireland's success but how the girls are such great ambassadors," reflects Fiona. She contributed an awful lot to those firm foundations being laid during her captaincy period and the greatly respected Coghlan continues to be an important promoter and influencer for Irish women's rugby as the current crop of girls in green embark upon a new World Cup campaign next week.

Ireland's group games against Australia (August 9), Japan (August 13) and France (August 17) in Dublin are all sold out but tickets are still available for their first Belfast fixture on August 22 and the World Cup final itself four days later.


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