Talented Ulster trio inspire rising stars of rugby
Interest in Irish women's rugby has never been greater. The enthusiasm sparked by the success of 2013 when, in chronological order, the Philip Doyle-coached, Fiona Coghlan-captained heroines beat Wales (10-12), England (25-0), Scotland (3-30), France (15-10) and Italy (3-6) en route to the Grand Slam laid the foundations for what has followed.
Last season saw the women in action at Twickenham where they went down 17-10 to their English hosts and – for the first time ever – at the Aviva Stadium where a crowd of just over 5,500 remained to watch the Irish girls trounce Italy 39-0, thereby providing the perfect encore to their male counterparts' 46-7 decimation of the Azzurri on the day Brian O'Driscoll set a world record for rugby Test appearances.
Such is the growth of the women's game in Ireland that they appear to have no problem in continuing to raise – and duly clear – the bar, for having added a first Aviva Stadium outing to the previous season's clean sweep, their encore has come in the form of this afternoon's Women's Rugby World Cup semi-final date with England at Paris's Jean Stade Bouin (live on TG4 and Sky Sports 4 at 5pm).
Their march to the last four included an historic 17-14 Pool B victory over the defending champions, New Zealand, a result which catapulted them to the centre stage as well as having thrown down the gauntlet to Ireland's men, who have never beaten the All Blacks in 28 attempts dating back to November 1905.
Ever-growing numbers of women and girls are taking up the game, not least in Ulster where the standard set by Belfast Harlequins wing Ashleigh Baxter and Cooke centre Grace Davitt – both of whom are in the starting line-up for today's clash with England – is inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. A third Ulster player – Donegal's Larissa Muldoon –is on the bench.
Joy Sparkes, who spent 10 years as a women's development officer and is now a community rugby officer with a wider remit for the development of all aspects of the game at community level, knows better than anyone just how much progress has been made as a result of the Irish girls' on-going success.
She confirmed: "Since the Grand Slam win, 13 new female sections have been set up here in Ulster and that just shows the impact the girls' success has had.
"And of course there is media attention and interest in women's rugby now as well. All of this serves to inspire and motivate young girls who had maybe thought about taking the game up and who now aspire to being the next Ashleigh Baxter, Grace Davitt or Larissa Muldoon.
"It really has done significant work in helping us thrust women's rugby into the spotlight. When I took up the women's job 11 years ago we had two clubs and there was no work done in schools.
"Now there's 60 schools involved in the Girls Schools' Cup, with 28 new schools this season alone."