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No joke anymore, IRFU show they're taking women's rugby seriously

By Niall Crozier

It's not so long ago that the very idea of women's rugby was regarded as being a bit of a joke.

In truth, few men took it seriously, but then Ireland's women matched the 2009 achievement of their male counterparts by winning the Grand Slam in 2013.

Suddenly it was a whole new ball game.

A few weeks ago that fact was underlined when, immediately after the men's championship meeting, the Irish and Italian women's teams squared up in the Six Nations on the same Aviva Stadium pitch.

It was the first time Ireland's women were permitted to grace the sacred turf of the Dublin 4 arena and a crowd of just under 6,000 who remained after the men's match saw Ireland romp to a 39-0 victory.

In the wake of last season's Grand Slam, Ulster Rugby -- backed by money from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure -- appointed two Female Rugby Officers.

And last Saturday saw more evidence of the commitment to boosting the women's game with the Ulster Branch hosting a conference in the Seagoe Hotel, Portadown.

The purpose was to devise an agreed plan for the development of female rugby in the province and to that end some 45 key stakeholders representing a dozen clubs took part in workshops.

Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan -- the Irish Sports Council Sportswoman of the Year in 2013 -- delivered an inspirational keynote speech.

Stressing the role of unsung heroes in the growth of the game she told her audience: "I wouldn't have played for Ireland without volunteer coaches; they are so important.

"The Grand Slam came after years of work, particularly by volunteers. Putting structures in place now will help get more people involved and provide more opportunities."

Fellow-international Nora Stapelton spoke, too, in her capacity as the IRFU Women's Development Executive.

Highlighting her vision for the future she said: "This conference has given us a great opportunity to find out how people on the ground feel.

"There's a mixture of players, coaches and administrators here and it's important to get their feedback.

"I'd like to see all four Provinces with a flourishing girls mini and youth scenes and thriving provincial and All- Ireland Leagues."

Mary Quinn, chairperson of the IRFU Women's Sub-Committee, said: "We need to empower people with an interest in rugby and get them involved as a coach or volunteer. We must ensure our volunteers are happy and well mentored."

No turning back now, ladies and gentlemen...

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