TV View: Enthralling reminder of Irish women’s rugby team’s rise from obscurity

Gem of a documentary on TG4 captured the ups and downs of an extraordinary story which began in 1993

Fiona Coghlan had no little sympathy for the Sharks players on Saturday evening during RTÉ’s coverage of their URC game when she recounted the journey they’d had to make from South Africa to The Sportsground to take on Connacht.

Durban to Johannesburg to Doha to Dublin to Galway, 40 hours in all, the generously proportioned lads wedged in to economy class on the airborne legs of their trip.

Add to that the fact that it was 25 degrees and sunny when they left Durban, and here they were playing in horizontal rain and a howling gale. They did mighty well to only lose 24-12, not least because most of their first-choice players were sunbathing back home.

But little wonder that Coghlan felt for them, she’d endured enough bonkers trips in her time playing for Ireland, most notably that infamous “planes, trains and automobiles” 17-hour marathon to Pau in the south of France for a Six Nations game 10 years ago.


The madness of it all was told in a gem of a documentary on TG4, Rugbaí na mBan: Ag Briseadh Tríd (Breaking Through), which looked back on the 30-year story of the Irish women’s team who played their first ever international against Scotland in 1993.

Sport, by its very nature, consists of highs and lows and not a whole lot in between, but the extremes of what this national team has gone through in just three decades has been pretty remarkable.

The BBC paid a very lovely tribute to Gianluca Vialli on Sunday afternoon when a montage of his finest moments was, poignantly, narrated by his own voice. “You never lose – you either win or you learn,” we heard him say.

That seemed to be the mantra of the Irish team through the years, humiliating maulings, like a 76-0 defeat by the United States in just their fourth ever outing, enough to persuade most to throw their cap at it. But all they did was dig a little deeper.

There’s an unfortunate tendency with documentaries on women’s sport to focus a lot more on the struggles than the achievements, to paint the protagonists as eternal victims rather than gutsy competitors who keep on battling until what they do on the field earns them respect off it. This one got the balance just right. It was lovely.

As we know, you only have it made in Ireland when you appear on The Late Late, but the team’s debut on the show, soon after they embarked on their international journey, was a hoot, Gaybo introducing them like they were a novelty act.

“You don’t mind the mud and the dirt,” he asked them.

They chuckled. No.

And then there was that was that mention of them “staying in a nunnery in Stillorgan” ahead of a game, because they couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel, and all you could say was, ‘wait, what?’

The magical year was 2013, when they won the Grand Slam, their campaign starting with a game away to Wales who, coach Philip ‘Goose’ Doyle told us, were renowned for being a touch naughty towards their visitors. Like making sure their showers were cold, and such like.

They outdid themselves in this encounter, the Irish team finding their dressing room door locked when they tried to gain entrance at half-time.

Goose politely asked two Welsh officials to produce a key. No joy. So, “he absolutely Bruce Lee kicked that door in,” recalled Jenny Murphy. They were, then, able to enter the dressing room at the break, even if their chat would have been less than private, what with the door hanging off its frame.

They won the game, then trolleyed England 25-0 in Ashbourne, then cruised past Scotland away from home, 30-3, then beat France by five points, and then won the Grand Slam on a hypothermia-inducing day on the outskirts of Milan.

The tears tumbled. Few of us had paid any attention to this team at all until that day, but interviews with a heap of its pioneers – like Tanya Waters, Carole Ann Clarke, Rosie Foley and Lynne Cantwell – gave us a notion of the slog that was required before they made the front pages.

There was a sprinkling of glorious moments after, like beating New Zealand in the 2014 World Cup and winning the Six Nations the following year.

But it’s been a depressing tale of missed opportunities ever since, a failure to build on what those players had achieved. We’ll see where these new professional contracts take the game.

But this was a gorgeous reminder of the trip so far, featuring a cast of the mightiest of women.