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AIL, Interpros and Celtic Challenge: Is the pathway improving for Irish players?

By Lucy Lomax
4 February 2023; Ireland's Combined Provinces team after the Celtic Challenge 2023 match between Combined Provinces XV and The Thistles at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. (Photo By Ben McShane/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

There has been much talk in recent years surrounding the Ireland Women’s team and unfortunately for the players and the union, the large majority of it has been negative.


It has been depressing as a bystander watching on and for the people involved in the women’s game behind the scenes trying to push the sport forwards, those past few years must have been nothing short of soul destroying.

However, rather than dwell on the failings of the IRFU, which have been well documented, let’s explore how the national side is being developed and bolstered with one eye on the 2023 Women’s Six Nations which arrives at the end of March.

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History has shown, to breed a successful senior national side, the grassroots and domestic levels of the game need to flourish. The pathway system also plays a large role in talent identification and player development for a country, as Rachael Burford writes about in her recent column, and it appears the IRFU along with the SRU and WRU have finally clocked onto this point.

The Celtic Challenge competition kicked off at the end of January and consists of three development teams from each union; Scotland’s Thistles, a WRU Development XV and Ireland’s Combined Provinces. Ireland’s team have made a strong start so far with a one-point win away in Wales and a resounding victory at home against the Thistles.

For Ireland, in order to accommodate the Celtic Challenge games ahead of the Six Nations, the domestic All Ireland League (AIL) season which normally runs from September to April, was shortened to finish in December, with the number of Interprovincial matches reduced to three.

One woman who has coached in the AIL for Ballincollig RFC and UL Bohs and who oversaw this year’s Interprovincial success with Munster as Assistant Coach is Fiona Hayes. Alongside Head Coach Niamh Briggs, the two former internationals led their province to back-to-back Interpro titles for the first time since 2015.


The Limerick City native drew on the positives of this season’s Interpros, but admits she can also see improvements which need to be made.

“It was very positive from us this year, (Niamh) Briggs led a lot of high tempo sessions and the girls really bought into that,” said the former prop. “With the Interpros being straight after the AIL season, it really helped with the skill sets on show and I think that’s a lot to do with where the Interpros were on the calendar.

“The whole calendar has changed, we had a shorter AIL season from September to Christmas and went straight into the Interpros which meant we didn’t get to spend as much time as we had in the past with the players as they were with their clubs.

“I liked the format we had before of three Interpro games and then a semi-final and a final as it allows you to have a second bite at the cherry with a certain team. For a lot of the players, they’re finding their feet at that level in those first few games and allows you to rotate your squad a bit more going into a semi or final. But saying that, I enjoyed it this year as we won it and the players looked sharp, and we played some of our best rugby.”


As Hayes alludes to, the standard of this year’s Interpros was higher due to the players having played an entire AIL season before the provincial competition.

However, some have suggested the AIL needs more funding and investment from the IRFU in order to improve the standard and encourage players to stay in Ireland and not be drawn to head to France or England’s Premier 15s.

“The AIL isn’t competitive enough outside the top four or five, a lot of players are playing in Dublin due to the geography of getting jobs, the big-name players live in Dublin and especially with contracts being put on the table by the IRFU, players may now switch to play for Dublin based sides.

“The IRFU need to look at the structure because there isn’t enough competitive game time for the girls to get a crack at an Irish jersey. If there were more competitive games, it would bring on the provinces and bleed through to the Irish team and push women’s rugby forward in the country.”

In agreement with this statement is current Leinster Women’s Head Coach Tania Rosser.

“The AIL is always going to be important in the women’s game in Ireland and feeds into the provinces which should always be that steppingstone to playing for your country,” said the former sevens and 58-cap XV international.

“The more game time the girls can play the better, a lot of it is rugby smarts and knowing the game. We have a lot of young players in the Leinster squad and the more they are challenged at a high level the better, and now they have the Combined Provinces team to aim for in the Celtic Challenge. Having that extra bridge before the national team can only be a positive for them.”

However, Rosser, who represented Leinster as a player for ten years, believes reducing the number of fixtures at provincial level to three and the rearranging of the calendar at short notice negatively impacted the preparation and contact time she had with her Leinster team.

“The disappointing thing is the chopping and changing of the dates and we weren’t clear of the Interpos fixtures until a few weeks out and that’s difficult as a coach and for your squad and players.

“Provincial is a step up from club and a vital cog in the pathway to the national side, it’s an honour to play for your province, but due to the AIL Final being delayed due to bad weather, we only had two weeks before our first match where I could have the whole squad doing full contact. Previously when the Interpros were played over the summer we had a good 12-week block leading up.

“At Leinster we are pulling players from a mixture of clubs across the region and so are Ulster and Connaught, so it’s hard when you only have a two week lead in to gel these players. The senior women’s provincial teams need to have more than three games, currently the girls in our Under 18 system get more games than the senior women’s team.”

Asked around the new centralised IRFU contracts for 15s players and why a number of internationals decided not to take them up, Rosser explains:

“A few of our players turned them down and it’s hard because we want to get the girls back from the Premier 15s, they’re top-quality players and should be able to fit into a system well over here. However, Dublin is really expensive, you can’t live in Dublin unless you’re on a good salary and a lot of the girls have very good jobs which they can’t turn down for a rugby contract, I certainly wouldn’t if I was in that position.

“I hope the contract situation works itself out, because then we can push on to get to those levels of England, New Zealand and France. I think we’re heading in the right direction. I can only speak for Leinster, but a lot of our girls are hungry to play and just need more game time. The Celtic Challenge competition will be brilliant for them to learn their trade, get used to different referees, and the different sides and their styles.

“I also hope we get to the point that our player pool in the next four or five years is large enough so that we don’t have to rely on the sevens girls. We need to allow the sevens players to focus on their sevens career because that is an important arm for Irish rugby as well. If you look at the men’s programme, not many of them transfer back and forth. You don’t see England Women doing it, that’s my take.”

Despite the many challenges and reputational damage of the IRFU in recent years, to which they’ve been their own worst enemies at resolving, it does appear with the introduction of professional contracts and the Celtic Challenge competition, that there are positives to move forwards with and show that at long last something is shifting in the offices at Lansdowne Road.

Hayes summed up this point nicely, saying: “The Celtic Challenge is the perfect build up to this year’s Six Nations. You have to remember; it wasn’t so long ago there was an Irish team beating England and France. We won the Six Nations in 2015, so we’ve got to get our confidence up and control what we can.”


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RUGBYPASS+ Billy Twelvetrees: 'Ed started pre-season with us and and nine months on he’s really struggling. Jesus Christ.' Billy Twelvetrees: 'Ed started pre-season with us and and nine months on he’s really struggling. Jesus Christ.'