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From Valentine to Dane: How Enniskillen became the home of women's rugby

 

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Royal Salute: Enniskillen Royal Grammar School captain India Daley celebrates with her team after defeating local rivals Erne Integrated College in the Ulster Schoolgirls’ rugby final at Kingspan last month

Royal Salute: Enniskillen Royal Grammar School captain India Daley celebrates with her team after defeating local rivals Erne Integrated College in the Ulster Schoolgirls’ rugby final at Kingspan last month

Photo by John Dickson / DICKSOND

Kathryn Dane

Kathryn Dane

�INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Royal Salute: Enniskillen Royal Grammar School captain India Daley celebrates with her team after defeating local rivals Erne Integrated College in the Ulster Schoolgirls’ rugby final at Kingspan last month

That women's rugby took its first tentative steps into the world on a field in Fermanagh is something of a relatively recent discovery.

Emily Valentine, dubbed the female William Webb Ellis, discarded her coat and hat before evening up a lopsided contest at Portora Royal in 1887 after the hosts had found themselves a player shy. Her memoirs confirming the fact, however, were discovered only in 2010.

So while it is tempting to simply suggest Enniskillen has always been the home of women’s rugby, the genesis of how the town on the banks of Lough Erne became something of a production line for promising young players pre-dates any knowledge of Valentine’s important contribution. She may have been the first, but she has proven to be far from the last.

Last month, on the final day of rugby at Kingspan Stadium prior to the Covid-19 enforced shutdown, Enniskillen Royal claimed their latest crown in a long line of schools title, beating Erne Integrated in the final. What made the game so unusual was how well acquainted the opposing sides were with each other. Twelve in total, an even six from each side, were club-mates from Enniskillen’s under-18s.

“It was a strange one for them alright,” says their coach James Moore who has led the age group for four seasons. “There was a lot of banter between them in training in the run-up to the game.

“I had to put them all in different teams the week before so we didn’t get a preview of who was going to win.”

That the club would aid in the development of so many finalists is no fluke - of the latest under-18 Ulster side last summer, seven had learnt the game in Enniskillen while, at the highest level, Kathryn Dane and Claire Boles, childhood friends who were among the club’s earliest under-16s intakes, made their Ireland debuts within a week of each other last year.

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Kathryn Dane

Kathryn Dane

�INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Kathryn Dane

 

When asked how he came to be a part of such a successful girls set-up, Moore laughs.

“Well, I’ve got four daughters for starters so that’s why I was asked,” he says. “If you look at where we are now, it’s all the product of two things, people and talent.

"People to give up their time and just a very talented group of girls.

“You just had a lot of people who were passionate about rugby giving up their time. By the time I came along, all the hard work had already been done.”

One of the figures he refers to is Rob Watson, the club’s community rugby officer and a key architect in developing a link between the schools and the clubs.

“It was back in 2002 when the club first had started to set-up a women’s senior team but it was a player Corrina Power who quickly realised that for anything to take off in the long-term, you needed that base coming through,” he remembers.

“She went out and secured some funding, through the peace project money, and I got the job that was created off the back of that.

“If Corrina hadn’t been there, if she hadn’t had that thought process that we need someone in the school promoting this, I think the development would have been much slower and much later. To be where we’re at now with our numbers, that takes a long time to develop.”

At the outset, it wasn’t always an easy sell.

“A lot of mummies and daddies maybe thought it was okay for their sons, the rough and tumble of it but not for the wee lassie, it’s taken 15 or 16 years for that idea to bed in,” Watson says. “Early on schools would have all been tag rugby but now if they want to do tackles, they do tackles. It’s on TV a bit more, it's in newspapers, there’s so much vision of women’s rugby that there isn’t that fear factor anymore.”

Enniskillen Collegiate, under the stewardship of Ali Finlay, and Erne Integrated, where another Enniskillen clubman Rory Hill was a key figure, were among the early adopters, while pupils at schools like Mount Lourdes where GAA would have been the dominant sport were soon encouraged to see how their skills would crossover too.

Ali Finlay, recognised by Ulster Rugby last year with a Volunteer Champion Award in recognition of extraordinary achievements in female schools rugby, signed off last season with a first ever double, a high watermark of what's been a remarkable run of eight from nine tag titles and two of three in cross-field sevens.

A passionate rugby fan, especially sevens, she always encouraged pupils to take the trip down to Mullaghmeen in addition to her own coaching.

"Any girls that came to us, we promoted that they go to the rugby club too," she says. "They would get 15s there rather than the tag but more importantly the coaching, the fun that they have there.

"The camaraderie they develop, the lifelong bonds, encouraging that is always the ethos of it rather than anything else."

Whether it be tag, cross-field sevens or 15s, the message is the more rugby the better, no matter what the code.

“When you look at the success of it all, the key,” says Moore, “is that it’s a mutually beneficial relationship between the schools and the club.”

Never more so than in the case of Kathryn Dane. Now capped nine times by Ireland, the daughter of a former Enniskillen club captain, she grew up virtually in the shadow of the grounds, going from mini-rugby there, through tag at school, back to 15s at the club and all the way to first-choice Irish scrum-half.

"At the age of eight or nine, I took the notion to try mini-rugby,” remembers Dane, who also showed promise as an underage footballer, representing Northern Ireland up to under-19s level. “There were never any girls there but that didn’t put me off. I suppose the coaches of the team must have been a bit apprehensive because I’m a bit small and I’d say at that stage I was half of the size of the boys. It was a big step for them I think to even let me jump in and tag along.

“It was obviously a bit different. I was always using the referees changing rooms which are normally about the size of a portaloo but I suppose when you’re little you don’t really appreciate the difference.”

Once competition really started, the differences were so stark that even youngsters couldn't help but notice.

"At school, the girls became aware that were these Ulster club blitzes going on and as the tag team in school, we agreed en masse that we'd go for it," Dane says.

"A lot of the girls at that stage probably hadn't played contact rugby so it was certainly a big change and we'd struggle for numbers sometimes.

"I'd be going around bribing people with pizza. We'd have after-school rugby from maybe half three to half four and be due at the rugby club for half five or so.

"I'd be going round telling people that I'd drive them to my house, feed them, and bring them back. It must have worked, we were formidable in those days.

"We'd go to these blitzes and we were total underdogs. We'd pitch up in this battered bus but with all these supporters. Enniskillen people, you'd almost liken it to Munster in the European Cup, they're die-hard and they'll travel anywhere in these big numbers. Male or female, they'll follow. We wouldn't have the kitted out clubhouses with gyms and bars, we very much had to DIY everything, but there's always that sort of spirit.

"We didn't have any kits or anything to wear. I think we were handed down these real old-school, youth boys Enniskillen jerseys. Teams would scoff at us and we'd hammer them

"There are still photographs from those first few finals I think up in the club. It was magic."

Now, there’s an established pathway from Enniskillen, both schools and club, to a green national jersey.

“The last home game (Ireland) had in the Six Nations, the ball girls were from Enniskillen,” Dane adds. “I made sure to tell them to keep it up and they can be standing where I am before they know it. I see the talent in those girls, there’s a huge amount coming through and I really hope they keep it going

“There’ll be a few bumps in the road but I love the idea of playing with them all one day, they’re incredible. They’re already knocking on the door.”

Watson goes one step further.

“The IRFU, you already see them now looking to see who is the next one coming out of Enniskillen,” he says. “If some of those girls don’t play for Ireland, there’s something wrong with the selection.”

Belfast Telegraph