As women’s rugby continues to prosper globally, Ireland’s Nora Stapleton feels this summer’s arrival of the World Cup can only help the sport to grow locally.
The Fahan native, who played for Ireland at the last World Cup three years ago, believes clubs like City of Derry and the wider sporting public in the North West are all getting on board.
“Obviously with the World Cup coming this August, for the national team it has given us huge focus in our training, but then when you look outside of that, you can see the interest in the team increasing,” confirmed Stapleton.
“I was asked recently, ‘What has the growth been like?’ and honest to god, three years ago the minute the Six Nations would have ended no one would have said ‘hard luck’ or ‘well done’ to me because they just wouldn’t have known it was on. Now people were saying to me, ‘Hard luck’ and ‘I was watching the match’.
“A couple of years ago when I went into schools I would ask the pupils, ‘Did any of you watch any of the games?’ and no one would put up their hands. Now when I go into a classroom and ask the same question about a quarter of the class are saying they have either seen a match or they have been to a match.
“You also have girls now saying they are playing rugby, or else they want to play rugby, and they are trying it out. That’s where the whole trend has changed.
The World Cup is a chance for us to really showcase rugby in Ireland.Nora Stapleton
“Now, we still have a lot to do in terms of trying to catch up other sports in the country, but that’s because we are relatively new and we are growing.”
The 33-year-old, who visited Judges Road with the Women’s World Cup trophy last week, feels the game is slowly getting introduced to school kids but she stressed that ladies rugby is for all and said she can’t believe how far the game has come since she started to play.
“The World Cup is a chance for us to really showcase rugby in Ireland; to really get more females interested in rugby, because the sport is for females of all ages and that’s the best thing,” she added.
“You have got the six-year-old kids who are dragging their mums and dads to the rugby club because they want to play, to 36 or even 46-year-old ladies who want to try something new and that’s absolutely brilliant.
“There was no rugby in the Inishowen area when I was growing up. Yes, City of Derry always had a team but there was just nothing when I was a kid so you never thought about playing rugby. Now, especially in the schools, a lot of teachers are doing quality work and then there are volunteers who are working at both clubs and schools.
“I was in Carndonagh and they have something like 50 girls playing in the secondary school which is unbelievable and that’s only really from the fourth year students. There’s obviously a lot in first year, second year and third year, who are crying out to play as well, they just haven’t been given the opportunity yet.
“I believe that’s the big thing to try and give girls the opportunity to play and, fair play to the volunteers in the various clubs, whether it’s mums and dads or just ex-players coming in, they are coming in and learning how to coach the sport.”
The Irish out-half admits she is proud of how the game has developed in the North West and hopes more players from the area will play for Ulster before moving onto represent their country.
“I definitely get that sense of pride at what’s happening now,” admitted Stapleton.
““I actually love what I’m seeing in Derry and around Inishowen because this is where I grew up and I didn’t have that opportunity whereas now thousands of girls can get the opportunity and it’s absolutely fantastic.
“There are four girls in the Irish panel at the minute from Donegal and that’s from a county that doesn’t really have a strong team, so it’s just mad to think how many other players we could contribute to the Ireland side, if there were more playing rugby.
“Down the years, as a county or perhaps the North West in general, needs to try and get more into the Ulster or Ireland squad. There are a lot of girls coming from this club and other clubs.
“City of Derry have provided a high number of players to the Ulster team and the Irish team of course. Stacey-Lea Kennedy was one of our regulars and that was great.
“They are obviously one of the best teams in Ulster at the minute, that’s how they qualified for the playoffs. It’s great as it means we are getting the next best team who are coming into the AIL but it also gives those players a taste of things in the AIL, travelling and things like that.
“Having said that, as a club they have been in that competition before but the main thing is that you are getting the players out training every night. They love training,. They love playing matches and that’s the most important thing at the end of the day.”
Only a few weeks ago Ireland narrowly lost out on winning their second Six Nations title in three years, as a much stronger England side defeated them at Donnybrook Stadium, but Stapleton believes that loss has left the squad more refocused ahead of August’s World Cup, which starts in Dublin before moving to Belfast and the Kingspan Stadium for the knockout stage.
“Obviously your aim when you go into the Six Nations is to win it but we always knew England were going to be difficult,” she added.
“Yes we knew all the teams were going to be difficult in their own right, but especially England because of talk of them going professional.
“You don’t tend to look at that too much, as it’s more about what you can do on the pitch, to counter act how they play and things. But it’s great to be able to play that calibre of a team in the Six Nations because there is no other competition around the world like the Six Nations.
“It’s probably the next best competition to the World Cup and we are lucky to get to play in it every year, it’s fantastic preparation for us and all the players will be putting their heads down and working hard over the next few months to get ourselves in prime position for the World Cup. We’ll be improving our fitness, our skills, everything to get ourselves ready for August.
“When you play rugby at the highest level you put a lot of things on hold and while you might not be a professional, you still put in an awful lot of time to be the best athlete that you can be.”