In the latest issue of Across The Laighin, Rachael O’Brien speaks to Lisa Doyle about her role in rugby in the province, having never played the game.

Having never played a game of rugby, Rachael O’Brien has been involved within the sport over the last decade. She is one of many volunteers involved in the running of the game around the province, and without volunteers like the Carlow woman, the running of the game would not be possible.

So how does someone who has never played a game of rugby, get so involved in making an impact in our women’s game.

Growing up in Tallaght, rugby was never a stronghold in the area, this was before the formation of Tallaght rugby club.

So, all throughout her teen years in the 1990’s, there was no rugby for her to play. Rachael tells us about her awareness of the women’s game, or lack of at the time. “I wouldn’t have even been aware of, and they probably wouldn’t have been much of a women’s rugby scene.”

“I would’ve just spent the majority then, watching AIL games, internationals and Leinster Rugby games when I could and I absolutely loved it. I’ve always loved the game, it’s buried itself in my heart. I’ve great memories of going to Donnybrook, the RDS and the Aviva for many games with my uncle John. If there was a game on TV I had it on.”

So that was Rachael’s introduction to the game of rugby, but what about the women’s game. As it probably wasn’t a stronghold to where we are now. She tells us about when women’s rugby was brought to her attention.

“I suppose to some degree I probably stumbled across it, I remember reading a short article in the newspaper on the Ireland women’s international debut in 1993 against Scotland, it was also Scotland’s first international. I remember being frustrated at the lack of information during the 1994 Women’s Rugby World Cup in Scotland. Thankfully it’s not like that anymore! I tracked it from there and discovered what the club structure was and what the provincial structure was and how it all worked and how they tied into each other.”

Rachael moved to Carlow for college in 2003 and this was where she first became involved with club rugby, through volunteering, and eventually made County Carlow Football club her home club.

“I moved to Carlow in 2003 for college and never left. I stayed and then I ended up getting a job in 2005 in IT Carlow, now South East Technological University, and kind of discovered then I had a lot more time and that I could either find a way to play or get involved”.

However, an ACL injury hampered Rachael’s chances of playing, so she decided to stay involved and go the volunteering route instead.

There was a new women’s rugby team set up between IT Carlow and County Carlow Football Club. This amalgamation brought about the ITC Carlow Coyotes.

“I had heard about a women’s team being set up in the club. And found out what way it was linked up with the college. So even though I couldn’t play, I thought at least there’s other things I can be doing here and try help out in the background.”

Rachael has held many roles within the club committee structure, which started off with promoting the newly formed women’s team on social media and in the local community.

“At first, I did some of the PR for the club. What the club asked me to do was communications and PR for them, to get the word out on the club and build support for the club. I also looked after the club website and promotion, sat on a few sub committees, fundraising, events etc, before they asked me to be honorary secretary. It’s true what they say about volunteering… You never have just one role!”

Rachael speaks of the great support she had along the way from her club. “I had great support from the likes of Stuart Bayley and Des Kavanagh, who have sat on many different committees both in Carlow, the Leinster Branch and the IRFU throughout the years, also from Melvin Elmes and many others within County Carlow Football Club, their support has been invaluable to me and without their guidance and continued support, I don’t think I would be here, about to join the IRFU committee.”

Her work in County Carlow Football Club was acknowledged when she was awarded Club Person of the year in 2016. In the tradition of Carlow women breaking the mould, Rachael was the first woman to receive the award, although there was a mix up with the engraving of this award.

Rachael explains, “When the award was ordered, there was a mistake made along the way, and it was engraved with the wording “Clubman of the Year” A quick trip back to the jewellers saw the mistake resolved. “We had a good laugh about it after, especially coming from a very progressive club who are very proud of their gender balance across their committees. County Carlow Football club was the first senior club in Ireland to have a female president, Maureen Gordon”.

Rachael sat on a broad range of committees within her club, before joining committees within the Leinster Branch. She headed along to a Women’s South-East area meeting, where she met our former first female president of the branch, Debbie Carty.

“I went to a clubs meeting in the college for the South East area, and that was when Debbie Carty was the chairperson of the Women’s Committee, they were screaming out for help and, I thought I could do that! It was something I wanted to do, anything I could do to give back to the game, I was happy to help. At that time, they were really looking for help. Again, it was around communications and PR, so I joined the Women’s PR subcommittee and the Domestic PR and subcommittee in the Leinster Branch.”

Rachael sat on this subcommittee for a year and then became the Women’s PRO on the Women’s Committee, which is a role she has a hand in for the past eight years. While in this role, she also overlapped as the Honorary Secretary of the Women’s League and things escalated from there. In 2016 she received the Leinster Rugby PRO of the year award.

“That award was a huge surprise, we had put in a lot of work around our PR plan, how we wanted to present the women’s game in Leinster.”

“I loved promoting the game via the Leinster Women’s Rugby social media channels, we’ve built up a great following across our platforms over the last 10 years or so. A lot of credit for that must go to the clubs for engaging with us, sending us on their good news stories and articles for Leinster match programmes. Marta Giner and more recently Emma Louise Keogh from Tallaght RFC have taken over the role of Women’s PRO, they continue to promote everything that’s great about women’s rugby in Leinster.”

By the time she was the Honorary Secretary of the women’s section, Rachael had a really broad understanding of both the male and female game, domestic, provincial, junior and senior level.

“I built up a lot of knowledge from being involved with my own club Carlow, how the junior and the senior structure works, how the areas work, how Leinster Rugby works across the domestic game. Dave Coughlan (RIP) approached me to go forward for nomination as Honorary Secretary, he and his wife Sue were both stepping down from the Women’s Committee due to his ill health”.

Going forward for this role meant she went onto the Leinster Branch executive committee as the Women’s Rugby representative.

“There was a huge amount of information coming at you, but I got to also meet so many fantastic volunteers who are so good with their time, sharing knowledge and support and they’re all there for the same reason, for the same love of the game. Some of these guys have been involved with their clubs for decades. The knowledge and experience they have and are willing to pass on is invaluable”.

To sit on this number of committees, at both club and provincial levels maybe enough for anyone to keep up with, the Women’s committee, Domestic PR subcommittee, Executive committee, Awards committee and then more recently on the Inclusivity Committee. And now, Rachael will also sit on the IRFU Executive.

There’s been a massive change over the years Rachael has been involved in rugby, with more women involved in the game. As there has been massive growth in the female rugby game in Ireland. Rachael explains the difference from when she joined the Women’s committee in 2013 to today.

“The women’s game has grown massively. It’s actually 58.6% growth in women’s teams in the last 10 years. And it is the fastest growing female sport in Ireland.”

“The growth is down to the work on the ground in our clubs, investing in and setting up women’s and girls teams. The women’s committee, more so support the teams once they get up and going.”

Over her length of time as a volunteer, a lot has changed within the women’s game and it’s fantastic to see. Rachael speaks of a proud standout memory from all her years volunteering within the game.

“Back in 2015, in my first season as honorary secretary of the women’s committee, we were talking about what we needed to do preparation wise in terms of the interprovincial series that season”.

“We used to write all our own articles and match reports. We did most things around the games ourselves. We even sourced, ball girls for the games, the whole lot. And I asked the question ‘what happens with caps’, as the senior men’s team are all capped from their first game. When are the senior women players capped? Are they capped on retirement? Are they capped when they play their first game? How does it work?

“‘Oh, the women have never been capped’ was the response. And I responded, ‘well thanks very much. You’ve just given me something that I’m going to go after like an absolute terrier and I’ll keep going at it until I get it.”

After pleading the case of why our women’s senior side should be capped for Leinster Rugby. Rachael went off and ordered the caps, organised the event and had Fiona Coughlan present the first ever caps to the women who had made their senior debuts from 2016/17 and the event has been up and running each year, ever since.

“It’s been adopted and embraced by all, and we all look forward to each year now. So that is definitely something I’m very proud of. It took some work to get all in place, but now it’s a staple in the diary each season and I’m very proud to be part of that.”

These things don’t happen without support, and the biggest support and champion for the senior women’s side were former women’s team managers Lorna Quinn and Grainne Carroll.

“The unseen, behind the scenes work those ladies got through. They are both incredible. I’m very lucky to work with them.”

Since 2014 the year Rachael joined the women’s committee, the growth of the women’s game has been massive. And it’s still growing. Rachael speaks about her visions for women’s rugby game across grassroots levels.

“As a committee, we would like to see every club have at least one women’s team. I think the ones that have capacity to have a J1 side too, should aspire to it. So, there should be at least one in every club and two where they have the facilities and if they don’t have the facilities, there’s ways around that, there’s so many grants for clubs, so there’s no reason why clubs can’t develop their facilities to have more teams in the future.”

Rachael has seen many clubs try set up women’s teams in junior or senior clubs, but without any structure behind them, she explains why this isn’t sustainable and why sticking to the Leinster Rugby mantra of ‘From The Ground Up’ is so important.

“It’s very important to state, there’s no point in a junior or senior club having a women’s team if they don’t have the structure behind it. So, they need to have a really robust and strong youth set up. As our motto says, ‘From The Ground Up’. Every team has to be built from the ground up.”

“There’s no point in doing it from the top down. It doesn’t work. And we’ve unfortunately seen that. Wicklow would be the prime example of how things should be done. The work Wicklow RFC have put into their youths’ section, facilities, coaching set up etc has been phenomenal to watch”.

As part of her vision for the women’s game in Leinster, would be to have a women’s team across all our 70 plus clubs across the province. But why is this so important, what are the positive aspects of having female teams within our rugby clubs around the 12 counites?

“We have looked at this before, as part of the inclusivity committee. One of the findings in the survey completed was, why having a women’s team is important within our clubs and the benefits it brings, some of the main findings included, 90% of respondents said there was an increase in social scene in their club, 85% said bar and subs revenues increased, 80% said there was an increase in volunteers, and 75% said sponsorship increased. This is all from having a women’s section in their clubs. These stats are what clubs dream of.”

As a stalwart rugby volunteer for the past 11 years. Rachael talks about how anyone can get involved in the game, even without playing and how you would go about setting up a women’s team in your area, if there isn’t one available.

“Well, firstly I would say to the club, do you have a youth structure? You can set up a women’s team, but do you have a youth structure to feed into that? And if you do have a youth structure, what age are they at? There is no point setting up a women’s team without having, even an under 14s/16s/18s, who can feed into the senior team”.

“Talk to the CCROs (Club Community Rugby Officers) first, then you can talk to the women’s committee, for guidance on, how they would enter competitions, what they need to have in terms of player numbers, support from their club etc.”

“The women’s committee of Leinster Rugby have a checklist, there’s a number of things that we ask clubs to fulfil, and we also get the director of rugby or honorary secretary to submit the application to enter the Leinster League, so they know that they’ve got full support from their club.”

Rachael tells us there is a place for everyone in the game of rugby, even those who don’t want to or who never played. For someone like Rachael and would like to get involved, without playing who would like to help out and help change the game. How do you go about that? What would be the advice there?

“So, first of all, go to your local rugby club and volunteer there. It’s a case of cutting your teeth at your club. You need to learn how the game works top to bottom and bottom to top. How everything feeds in to the areas and then provincially, once you have a good knowledge of the club and area system you can take a leap towards volunteering at a provincial level.”

“There are many strong female volunteers out there. We need to support their journey should they want to volunteer beyond their club, at area committees or on Leinster Rugby committees.”

As Rachael will now be a representative on the IRFU committee, along with Grainne Carroll. She talks about trying to get more females involved in the game, not just on the pitch but beyond and future aspirations in her representative role.

“Some people can be frightened to step into such roles, as they are unsure what is involved. An initiative I am working on, which will hopefully get started in the coming months, is a female administrator mentoring programme.”

The program is at an early development stage, as Rachael has mentioned, there’s a large number of highly skilled female administrators out in our clubland.

“Some female volunteers may not want to go beyond their club. But for the ones that do want to go on provincially and maybe even a little bit further. We want to set up a mentoring program. So, in the first year, we’ll look at getting around 10 mentees and 10 mentors, link them up together. I will be calling on current members of the executive and management committees to become mentors.”

“Depending on the level of experience with each mentee, their length of experience in their club etc. Ultimately where they see themselves, being a volunteer and giving them an understanding of how everything works beyond their club structure and beyond.”

“So, they might be aware of how everything works in their club, how everything works in either junior or senior rugby, or both. But if they want to take that step forward to an area committee, Leinster branch committee, to show that there’s avenues for them to be able to do that. But they’ll also get, the information, guidance and support, to propel them forward.”

The main aim behind this initiative is to get more females involved on committees and help enrich the game, both on and off the field.

Rachael has not only been part of her club committees, and Leinster committees, but will this season, sit on the IRFU executive, as a Leinster Rugby representative, along with Grainne Carroll (pictured below), from MU Barnhall RFC.

This will be the first time, women have been elected as IRFU representatives from the Leinster Rugby executive committee.

Each of the provinces will put forward two female candidates this year, along with their normal two representatives. It’s five representatives in total this season, with two of those representatives being women. After three years, it’s going be a 50/50 split between male and female representatives from the provinces.

This is a very big achievement, to be representing her province, her area, her club, to sit on the IRFU committee.  What does this mean for Rachael. Will there be any impact from her as a female being involved in the game?

“It’s a positive step forward that I didn’t think I would see for a few more years. There were numerous highly capable female administrators who would have been able to do it. It is truly fantastic that we now have female representatives there, aiming to improve the game both on and off the field.”

“It was a huge honour to be asked to put myself forward for nomination to the IRFU Committee.

These are women, who are about not only the women’s game, but about the whole game, the bigger picture. They are ‘women in rugby’ rather than ‘women’s rugby volunteers.” That’s something I’ve been saying for years, the majority of women involved in our committee structures, from club land to province, are women in rugby – not just women’s rugby volunteers.”

“That’s the message we need to get across because even though I didn’t play, I might want to be involved somehow. This is my whole point around the female administrator mentoring programme, we’re not going to bring women through to sit on a women’s rugby committee or to sit on something women’s related. It’s rugby. It’s about women in rugby and bettering the game for all, schools, youths, adult.

Rachael has explained her involvement in the game of rugby throughout the years and shows how volunteers are so important in the running of our game. She is one of our great volunteers within Leinster Rugby and this was acknowledged at this year’s Leinster Rugby awards ball.

Rachael was awarded the Contribution to Leinster Rugby award, which is a big accolade to receive.

The vast number of volunteers we have within our game throughout the 12 counties, from clubland to Leinster, to the IRFU, is phenomenal and to be selected to win that award, is a very big achievement.

“It was a bit of a whirlwind. I’m still probably a little bit in shock about it, it was totally unexpected. It was only a couple of weeks between getting the phone call from Leinster President Debbie Carty to actually then being at the awards ball. I wasn’t expecting to be interviewed on stage. I’m not usually in front of the camera, I try my best to stay behind it!”

“It was a great honour. The breadth and depth of the fantastic numbers of volunteers in Leinster, I don’t know how I was selected from that pool of people.”

Not only is it a great achievement to be awarded the ‘Contribution to Leinster Rugby award’, but once again, the Carlow women is breaking glass ceilings, as she is the first female to ever receive the award, a very big achievement!

“It’s a great honour and it’s something that I definitely feel that I share with, all the other female volunteers within the game, especially those who have come before me.”

As Rachael will continue in her volunteering role within the game of rugby, by now sitting on the IRFU committee, I’m sure we will see a lot more from the Carlow woman who continues to break barriers and will continue on the path of bettering the game of rugby for all.