History will be made this weekend when Leinster Rugby host a double-header at Energia Park.
Saturday’s action will consist of the senior men’s team opening their preseason campaign with the visit of Coventry which will act as the curtain-raiser to the main event – Leinster Women taking on Connacht in the opening match of the extended interprovincial series.
Women’s rugby is growing in Ireland despite the disappointing nature of Ireland’s showing at the 2017 Rugby World Cup which was hosted on these shores.
A lot of hard work has been done in the interim to continue to grow the game in this country but there has been frustration with the rate of progress as England, France, Australia and New Zealand have blazed a trail to increase the gap between the best and the rest.
In the 15s game, Ireland have yet to crack the professionalism code but the IRFU did act by extending the upcoming season to include more national camps and lengthening the upcoming interprovincial series which is the most competitive level in this country below the international scene.
That series begins this weekend and with Leinster playing their match alongside the women’s game for the first time, it will provide another vehicle to drive the popularity of the sport.
“It’s a really exciting time,” Leinster Women’s head coach Ben Armstrong said.
“From its infancy to now, it feels like we’ve been waiting a long time and it’s finally here. Really looking forward to it. Again, Leinster are leading the way and really bringing women’s rugby to the fore.”
It’s not just the double-header taking place this weekend which has provided a boost to the players but perhaps as importantly, the women’s All Ireland League (AIL) now has a title sponsor in Energia and the players themselves have benefitted from commercial partnerships involving boot deals and supplements.
A small gesture it may seem from the outside looking in but from the level in which the sport has been operating, it’s huge.
“It’s extremely positive,” Leinster and Ireland international Sene Naoupu said.
“What you’re saying just there, it has come a long way. We’re really grateful for it. Leinster Rugby as a province, they’ve been champions for us in different departments. They’ve been really supportive of Leinster women’s rugby as a brand and us as a squad. The commodity is strong to invest in from a commercial point of view.
“It’s positive and we’re just really grateful for the opportunity to even play more games and for us, to be honest, the job for us is at the weekend and hopefully, our performances can show it really is worth the investment.”
Ultimately, the most important thing for female players in this country is to have a sense of belonging and the developments on and off the field which have been made recently are going a long way to developing that.
“The keyword there is belonging,” Naoupu continued.
“For us in the female game, it’s really important we feel like we belong to something and feel part of something. To be part of a province like Leinster Rugby is a huge privilege and there are a number of sponsors that have been supportive of the women’s game. The fact that there are committees driving this is really important.”
Australian native Armstrong recalls how back in his native country, double-headers are par for the course and he’s happy that the idea is catching on here.
“A lot of the grade games are played before the senior match. It creates a great atmosphere and it’s something we’re looking forward to running out into.
“Irish rugby is heading into a busy period with qualification for the next World Cup. That’s why they’ve expanded the competition and the more rugby the girls play at this level, the better prepared they’ll be for that.”
Armstrong, who was appointed Leinster Women’s head coach in June 2018, is in a good position to see how the game has developed over time in the province in his combined role of community rugby officer. The former Queensland Country player believes the women’s rugby has reached a new level.
“Yeah, it has reached a new level. Some of the stuff that we’ve been able to do for the girls, and get for them, is new. It just shows there’s a lot more interest in women’s rugby and it’s not just a sidebar anymore. It’s an event on its own.
“The camp this year, the Adidas sponsorship and boots for the girls, that wasn’t happening before. We got supplements again this year, Laya Healthcare have come on board with a rehab pack, so we’re looking after ourselves there.”
Leinster’s senior men’s side welcome Coventry to Energia Park at 3.00 pm on Saturday before the women’s side start their Interprovincial title defence when they take on Connacht at 5.30 pm.