By Alison Donnelly
The 100th game played by the Ireland womens rugby team will mark a historic 16 years on the international scene by a team who have made massive strides on the pitch.
Back on Valentines Day in1993 when the first Ireland womens side took to the international circuit when they took on Scotland in Edinburgh, few would have predicted how strong the national team would become in just a century of games.
From years of being cannon fodder for the stronger teams in Europe, Ireland have matured into a fine national side who last year finished third in the table (their strongest finish) and in doing so beat traditional powerhouse France for the first time along the way.
Their statistics however (Played 99, Won 28, Drawn 1, Lost 70) show how tough the road was in the early years for the Irish who despite having some fine players in their ranks Fiona Steed was surely one of the finest flankers to have graced the 6 Nations for example lacked the professionalism to make the step up to be competitive regularly.
That has changed in recent years with stronger support from the IRFU and the eventual merging of the IRWFU into the sports overall governing body in Ireland. The improved quality of coaching and development at provincial and national level means the players now are more equipped to stand up to the best teams like England year in year out and those Irish players who were involved in 1993 must be proud of whats been achieved.
I take some personal pride as well in the development of the game in Ireland having sat for 6 years on the IWRFU committee while structures and set-ups were established for the development of the game at all levels.
My time as the IWRFU PRO was a real pleasure, sitting alongside great characters and hard workers like the late Mark Andrews, Rohan West, Grainne OConnell, Susan Carty and Deirdre Lynch. Our meetings were never short a robust argument or two, but the foundations set in stone then had in no doubt a major part to play in the development of the Irish game.
My work involved promoting the womens game in Ireland to the media, in particular the national side. Back then I was regularly reporting on games where Ireland were being badly beaten so Im envious of those who do the job now who get to report so glowingly on results!
For other smaller nations where womens rugby playing numbers are also low Ireland offer some inspiration at international level.
Consecutive Irish coaches have focused hard on fitness and conditioning work with a core elite squad (which has stayed remarkably stable) over the past few years and the Irish are now among the fittest squads in Europe.
Improved financial support from the IWRFU in the early days through to the IRFU now also means that Irelands national team has been relatively well looked after in recent years a situation where teams like the USA struggle, with their players still forced to put their hands in their pockets heavily each year to play for their country.
Of course there are still issues with the development of club rugby in Ireland there are still remarkably few senior club teams and the bulk of the national team tends to be backboned by the same clubs year in year out but their pace of improvement is nonetheless impressive.
Certainly integration with the IRFU has helped and smaller womens nations who still run separate bodies should certainly eye the difference it has made to the Irish team.
A first win against England would crown an amazing rise but perhaps Im asking for too much!
Click here to view Ireland Women's Team 99 Games to date