To celebrate International Women’s Day, this year Leinster Rugby are recognising the incredible amount of work done by female volunteers around our clubs in the 12 counties, by profiling the contributions made by four of those women to their clubs.

Right across the province, clubs are benefitting from new ideas, vibrant enthusiasm and hard work done by their volunteers. As a club’s volunteer base evolves, every aspect of what that club offers to their community develops and a growing number of women are contributing to this.

Ruth O’Connell became involved at Portarlington RFC when the club decided to start an U-7 team for boys and girls. Ruth explains that it all started for her when parents were asked to help out: “My oldest son was playing in Portarlington Rugby Club and my daughter wanted to get involved too.

“At the time, there were no other girls on the U-7 team so she was nervous about starting. A message went out looking for volunteers/coaches. So, I said to my daughter if I volunteered would she be happy to start playing? And that was the start of both of our rugby journeys, we’ve both been involved ever since.”

This is now Ruth’s third season volunteering. She has since developed an U-5 team and recruited over 20 parents to become involved meaning that coaches can work with smaller groups of players which really helps to develop the kids’ skills.

Ruth has been assisted in developing a range of games for the sessions and training the volunteer coaches by club CCRO Pádraig Mahon and also by another rugby mum, Áine McNamara, who is a Professor in Elite Performance at DCU’s School of Health and Human Performance.

Ruth’s natural ability to encourage others to join the team of volunteers as well as her focus on making minis rugby fun for everyone involved has meant that the numbers of kids playing U-5 and U-7 has more than trebled since she became involved and her club really appreciates her hard work and commitment.

Ruth says that the biggest challenge for her is balancing her work and family life with volunteering. Planning sessions and arriving early to set up with four young kids in tow can be challenging but the rewards make it worth the effort.

She also says that as this was her first coaching role it was a daunting task but help from her club’s CCRO, Minis Co-ordinator and other coaches as well as coaching courses run by Leinster Rugby have made it possible for her to ensure that the kids and coaches continue to enjoy every session.

Ruth’s proudest moment as a volunteer was seeing a new development at the club that she was a big part of helping to become a reality.

That was the development of U-8, U-10 and U-12 girls minis teams. There are now over 70 girls playing at minis level including her daughter Sadie who, having spent her first season as the only girl in her team, is now thrilled to be part of an exciting girls team.

Ruth, who ran the club’s 2021 Summer Camp is also hugely proud that out of 170 kids involved over 45 per cent were girls.

“I was apprehensive to begin with. I had no rugby, let alone any coaching experience but from day one it has been such a great experience. I have enjoyed working with the kids so much it actually made me reconsider my whole working career. I left the corporate world and now work with kids on a daily basis which I love.

“My advice to anyone contemplating volunteering with your local club would be to just do it. Every club is crying out for volunteers and just like on a rugby team, there is a place everyone in your rugby club.”

Of course, clubs always emphasise that they value the contributions of all volunteers and that anyone who gives up their time will never be asked to commit to any more than they are comfortable with.

However some people who initially volunteer for a less demanding role will later show an interest in further, more significant commitments. One such club member is Caroline McFadden from Balbriggan RFC.

Caroline first became involved with her club nine years ago when she took on the role of club PRO. Her husband David, a former player, was already involved with the club and two of her children were playing minis at the time.

Her impact was immediate with the club’s profile rising in all forms of media as she produced quality content including excellent photographs. She also produced a book called From Ropewalk to Bowhill to commemorate the club’s 90th birthday.

Caroline’s hard work soon drew attention beyond her own club and she was asked to take on the role of PRO for the North East Area and she has been an integral part of the Leinster Domestic Rugby PR Committee as well as filling the role of Leinster Juniors PRO!

For most people, that would be more than enough work to take on but not Caroline. She still fulfils those roles and continues to maintain and exceed her own high standards while also taking the reigns as Balbriggan RFC Club President in 2019. During that time she has overseen the opening of their clubhouse, the development of an inclusion rugby team called The Stingers, the expansion of their youths and minis teams for boys and girls as well as their senior men’s and women’s teams.

She has a huge number of proud moments including being named Club Person of the Year in 2015, becoming the club’s first female President and watching all four of her children enjoying playing rugby including her daughter Kate who plays with the club’s U-18 girls team and also coaches the U-12 girls team.

The hard work and commitment of people like Caroline has seen success on the pitch at all levels and she, like everyone in Balbriggan, has been thrilled to see the club being represented at international level: “When our then U15s won their Leinster League final at Donnybrook, Aitzol King was captain of the team. His journey to the U-20 Irish squad this season has been a source of pride to all of us at the club.”

Caroline isn’t the only woman in Leinster to take on an executive role at her club. Like Ruth in Portarlington, Aoife O’Grady in Terenure College RFC first volunteered when her daughter, aged five at the time, decided that she wanted to play rugby. Aoife immediately took on the role of team manager and it wasn’t long before the she was drafted onto a wider club Women’s Committee.

Her work on that committee as well as her role within minis soon led to her being offered the role of club Honorary Secretary.

Like all of the women who have contributed to this article, Aoife says that her club has been exceptionally encouraging when it comes to getting women involved and she hasn’t ever encountered any barriers but she did tell us that when she joined the club’s committee she had to address an issue.

“They all kept apologising for swearing in front of me at a meeting – I had to intervene and say, “For feck’s sake, I’m not a nun!”

That sort of sense of humour is one of the many attributes that have helped Aoife and her peers to ensure that the gender balance at their clubs can improve without anything other than a positive impact on everyone involved.

Aoife is hugely proud to be the first female member of her club’s executive but she says that “the biggest achievement has been setting up a minis girls rugby team. We have gone from five girls to over 40 in just six months. I’m so proud of those girls and what they are doing.”

Edel Gibbons from County Carlow RFC has been involved with the club for over 25 years. She was a founding member of the club’s women’s team and had been involved with the club socially for years and so it was no surprise when she was approached by a member of the club’s committee and asked to join the Social Committee.

She says that she found working with others to run successful club events was extremely rewarding and something that she thoroughly enjoyed. But she clearly displayed exceptional skills during that time as she was named Club Person of the Year in 2010 and then, in 2017. she was approached and offered the role of Junior Vice President.

Edel has now served two years as Club President and is the second woman to be honoured with the position in her club which will soon celebrate 150 years of rugby.

All four women have become exceptional role models in their club and they say that they are lucky to have been influenced and encouraged by other women.

Edel gives us one particularly powerful example of this: “Maureen Gordan has always been someone I admired in the club. She was our club’s first female President and also the first female President of a senior club in Leinster.”

Another common theme among our contributors has been how keen they are to encourage other women to get involved in their clubs. The rewards that volunteering can offer such as achieving success as part of a team, being part of the buzz in a club and it’s social activities and the satisfaction from seeing more and more young people enjoying the benefits of inclusive team-based sport rank highest along with the friends that you make along the way.

Because of these benefits, all four women say that you shouldn’t wait to be asked – you should speak to someone who already helps out and just let them know that you’d like to do your bit. In Edel’s words: “Just ask, ask your child’s coach, the volunteer behind the bar or someone on the sideline. Once you put your hand up, you can be sure it will be taken off of you! You won’t ever regret asking, you will have the time of your life.”

On this day when the world recognises the contributions that women make to positive developments in their communities, their countries and our shared planet, we can say without fear of contradiction that every club that has encouraged female participation will have experienced the benefits of their involvement.

This week we will also celebrate the work done by women in developing the sport on the pitch and also the evolving administration of the Leinster Branch. Our clubs are our lifeblood and the woman who play a role in ensuring that there is truly a place for everyone in our clubs are a huge source of pride for all of us. We thank you for your commitment and look forward to sharing your ongoing success.

Thank you from everyone at Leinster Rugby to each and every woman who volunteers in rugby.