Across The Laighin: Emily McKeown – Player, Coach, Volunteer and WDO
March 2, 2022 3:26 pm Lisa Doyle
‘Across The Laighin’ is the magazine published exclusively for Season Ticket holders.
The fourth edition went live at the end of 2021 and over the coming days we will be giving Leinster Rugby supporters access to excerpts from some of the interviews and feature pieces.
Player, coach, club volunteer and full-time Women’s Development Officer.
Some might say working in a job you love doesn’t feel like work at all and that’s the case for Leinster Rugby Women’s Development Officer (WDO) Emily McKeown who has seen her passion for rugby turn into a hobby and a career.
As a kid, she played every sport but only found her love for rugby in secondary school while in transition year.
“I was always really sporty in national and secondary school, but I never really had a specific sport I played, I played everything from basketball, soccer, hockey, tennis, whichever was available for me to take part in,” she explains.
“I always watched rugby and I always wanted to play it and I did go down to the club once for training, but I didn’t like playing with the boys and then I picked it up again in transition year for the Gaisce Award, as we had to pick up a new sport as part of that.
“There were a few of us in the class, six of us, and we started playing rugby in Naas RFC and I stuck to it ever since then and I’ve just loved it and I haven’t stopped. We had very small numbers starting off, we were able to pull together about 10 players for match day, but at trainings there was always about six of us there every week. It’s mad to think of those numbers now, when you see how big the girls game has gone within Naas rugby club.”
It’s a real family affair and became even more so when Emily’s mum decided to dive into the coaching game too, as everyone else in the house was taking part in rugby in some way or another.
It would be hard to be the one in the house who would be left out.
“My mom is also involved in the club committee and is coaching the inclusive rugby team in the club. We all got involved in the club at different times, first my dad playing and coaching, then myself and my sister started playing and then my mom got involved as we were always in Naas RFC.
“My mom is the local SNA teacher and she wanted to get the kids in her class involved, so she began coaching them and they have a massive group playing now, it’s fantastic to see them on the pitch every Saturday in the club.”
After moving from England to Ireland, Emily tells us how the whole family came to be involved with Naas RFC.
“When my family moved over from England in 2002, my dad started playing with Naas, so I was always going down and watching his games and then when he finished playing, he started coaching, so I started coaching too when I was in transition year.
“I was always in and out of the club before I started playing there. The first award I got from the club was volunteer of the year as I was involved in a lot of ways whether it was coaching or fundraising, so I was always around the club before I even started playing with them.
“I then started playing with the club, while I was coaching the minis, so I suppose I was learning both sides of the game: playing and coaching.
“I played all of my underage rugby with Naas, except my final year when I was 18 as I got injured. Then I went to college in IT Carlow and picked rugby back up again and started playing on the college team.”
From Naas to Carlow, all that really mattered was making sure she had a rugby ball in hand and could play the game she loved, no matter where she was based.
“There was a lot of cross-over on those playing for both the club and college team so I knew a lot of the girls there, and again we had a really strong team with the club, as we started in Division 4 and moved up each year, even skipping Division 2 to move straight into Division 1 and we won that out too. So, I’ve great memories playing with both my college and club teams in Carlow.”
Making the move from underage rugby to women’s rugby can be a big jump for some people and Emily explains the differences she found when playing with her first women’s side.
“Big difference from underage to women’s definitely, from numbers at training and match days to quality of players, especially on the Carlow club team, there were a lot of girls playing there who had a lot of experience and the quality of playing and coaching would have been a big step up from underage. It was more serious, and I really enjoyed that.”
Before Emily joined her first women’s team, she had also got to experience playing on the U-18 representative team for Leinster.
That team was coached by Jennie Bagnall. Fast forward some years and they now work alongside each other in Leinster Rugby as Women’s Development Officers.
Bagnall is the Lead Women’s Development Officer with three others, including Emily, working with her to spread the women’s game around the province.
“I was 16 when I played underage for Leinster Rugby, it was actually Jennie that was coaching the team then, it’s crazy to think she coached me all those years ago and now I’m working alongside her on the ground for Leinster Rugby. So, I played two years at U-18 for Leinster, as I got injured in my final year.”
And last year marked a new milestone in the rugby life of Emily, making her senior Leinster Rugby debut in the interprovincial series during the autumn.
It was another step up and a real honour to pull on that blue jersey for the first time.
“I remember the difference from our club training to Leinster training, as we would have proper numbers for the Leinster training days, so it was fantastic to train and play at that level, with 30 other girls who wanted to train hard and play the best rugby when it came to representing their province.
“Even getting to play a proper 15-a-side game in training. Also then getting to focus on my position as a winger, rather than trying to play two/three different positions when we are short on numbers.”
She also highlights how she hadn’t planned on going to the trials at all, but luckily she did and not only did she get to make that debut but also got her name on the scoresheet with a debut try.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to go for trials or not, as I just hadn’t played rugby in that long, at that kind of level. But I went down to the trials anyway and got through to the final squad.
“I was on the bench, but I was training in my position as winger, and I hadn’t really got to focus on that position for a long time, as I was playing scrum-half or centre with Naas. I got to get back out to the wing so I was really happy with that and enjoyed that.
“I really wasn’t sure whether I’d get game time or not as the competition was so strong, so I was delighted to get a run. It was brilliant to get out on the pitch for two games representing Leinster.”
Women’s Development Officer role
“I’m in the role two years now and part of my role is giving girls the opportunity to play rugby, to experience the game, who might not have ever played before, or may not have the confidence to go to their local rugby clubs.
“I do find confidence is one of the main reasons why girls are afraid to give it a try, so if they get to try it out in school, they are much more likely to head to their local rugby clubs. We promote the clubs through the local schools, introduce them to the game through tag/touch rugby and then host blitzes and summer programmes. I suppose just to give them the opportunity to experience the game and try and get them linked in with the local rugby clubs.”
After working two years in the role, Emily tells us how she has seen a rise in the game, even in that short window.
Women’s rugby is such a fast-growing element of the sport, the development is easy to spot around Leinster.
“Definitely the numbers are continuously growing in the clubs I’m working with. It’s a lot to do with the dedication from the volunteers within clubs, they’re constantly in contact with me, promoting any blitzes or events that are coming up.
“We had over 700 girls take part in a blitz we held in Seapoint recently, a lot of the club coaches were answering any questions the girls may have. Even having our interprovincial games on tv this year, made such a difference. All the kids would be talking about watching the game at the weekend. So having the likes of those games on tv and having women’s rugby more visible has definitely helped.”
A lot of the work Emily does involves tag and touch rugby to try and encourage girls into the game before the move towards contact rugby.
There’s also a process of creating the transition from tag/touch rugby into contact rugby and how the WDO team help girls gain confidence through the programmes run in schools and clubs.
“A lot will always be mad to get into the contact element, you may see a few numbers drop off when contact is brought in, I always say to the girls before we start ‘Try it, experience it, if you don’t like it that’s absolutely fine, but you might actually find something you love and you never knew you loved it’.
“The way we work it is, we start with touch and tag rugby programmes, play games, work on our tackle technique and an introduction to contact before we move into full contact rugby, for those that want to try it and then we finish off with contact games.
“We try to create that confidence in girls, so they are more likely to head along to their clubs, when they have some experience in tackling, as we said before this can be a bit daunting for some people, so we try and prepare them as much as we can, so they have that confidence in the game.”
In the age group of first, second and third years, which Emily works with quite a lot, there have been a lot of reports done that show evidence of a fall off rate of girls that age playing sports.
Emily believes that the exposure to women’s sport within media and broadcast can help girls of that age to see the benefits of sticking with the game beyond underage level.
“I think with the amount of media coverage on women’s sport now it is slightly changing, in secondary schools you can find girls being shy and not wanting to be ‘the sporty one’, but I think that is flipping around now.
“There is still a drop off of girls playing sport at that age, but I find it’s more about confidence, whether it’s confidence in their ability to play, confidence in fitness levels, part of our job is to build that confidence. But I do think it is starting to change and hopefully over a few years that perception will be gone completely.”
Emily demonstrates a clear passion for the game and her work, which is a clear result of her family background in the game.
However, sometimes with full investment people can find it hard to keep going through the day-job, playing, coaching, supporting – all time consuming. Where is the balance for McKeown?
“It’s the amount of people I have got to know playing the game, the amount of teams I’ve played with and you can always easily slot into any team in rugby, I’ve played with so many different teams and always found them really easy to just fit in with, and I’ve always been very welcomed.
“And then playing the 80 minutes, I probably can’t put into words, why I love rugby so much, it’s the adrenaline it gives you while on the pitch, I just love it and then everyone heads back to the clubhouse after the game with the girls.
“For me it’s just a really good sport all-round to play and be involved with, I love everything about the game and then all the people you get to meet along the way. I’ve made so many friends through rugby, friends for life!”
For someone so invested in the game at all levels, Emily might have thought she struck gold when she was able to combine that love into a full-time job.
Thankfully, it seems that’s still the case two years on.
“I like getting to work with different groups constantly, so I’m working with groups who have played rugby and I can coach them a bit more seriously and it’s upskilling and bringing their game on. Then I can be working with groups that may have never picked up a rugby ball before, so it’s about seeing them getting excited while running around and enjoying it.
“Then I might be in secondary schools, where they can be a little bit harder to get going sometimes and then you see the change in them over the few weeks, getting more confident playing and by the end of the programme, they are pretty much just playing the games by themselves and picking up the ball before I even arrive.”
“That’s what I really enjoy, every day is different and working with all the different groups and introducing people into the game.”
The wider WDO team of Jennie Bagnall, Niall Kane and Grainne Vaugh all do great work around the province.
“Part of our role is to show anyone can get involved in the game, at any age, any ability, there is a place for everyone in every rugby club, whether it’s playing, coaching, refereeing, or volunteering.
“And for us, to help create those pathways and those opportunities for everyone to get involved.”
That work never stops.