Becoming the fifth province

London Irish Director of Ladies Rugby Mary Fyfe

The London Irish Director of Ladies Rugby told us how the club is building strong links with rugby in Ireland and are on track for securing top tier rugby for 2023

The London Irish Director of Ladies Rugby Mary Fyfe told The Irish World that she wants the club to be become a fifth province for Irish rugby while the club is on track to play in the top tier of female rugby in England by 2023.
Mary took part in the IRFU’s Spirit of Leadership Academy in September 2019, as the only non-Irish club representative and is looking to build a stronger bridge between the Irish rugby and the club of London Irish.

Mary Fyfe told The Irish World: “We spoke about trying to convene a cross water working group so that we are actively promoting and looking after the development of talent that becomes known to us.

“So if there’s someone in Connacht who wants to move, there’s an immediate first stop in terms of being able to look at what we can offer that girl in terms of education, in terms of job opportunities and certainly in terms of rugby.

“That we never lose anybody, nobody falls through the gaps and we make sure players are getting the right opportunities at the right time.

“On occasion, the opportunity is better placed here in the UK for a player at a given time in their development. We’re not doing that at the moment and it’s not for any other reason only that we don’t have that working group actively operating on behalf of players and making sure that we don’t lose any talent.

“We’re a community based club but we’re now playing elite level and performance level rugby. We’re very attractive both sides of the water.

“It goes back to exactly what we were created for which was to give Irish people who were not on their native shore a club, somewhere to socialise, somewhere to get to know people but also to play the sport of rugby.”

Although they were only established in 2015, London Irish Ladies want to be in the Tyrrells Premier 15s, the top tier of women’s rugby in England in 2023 and are on track to make that a reality after securing three successive promotions.

The 2019/20 squad.

The London Irish Director of Ladies Rugby Mary Fyfe told The Irish World: “We’re on a three year plan to get to the Tyrrells by 2023.

“The plan was to go through the league, build up a bit of credibility, build up a brand and be absolutely ready when we hit 2023 that we’re sufficiently established, that we still have a community game but we now have elite rugby as well.”

The first woman to be invited onto the London Irish Executive Committee in 2015 as Chairperson of Ladies and Girls, it was the late London Irish Chairman David Fitzgerald who tasked Mary with setting up the London Irish Ladies team.

“Has the progress been quicker than I thought it would have been? Probably not because I always think we’re going to do it. By anyone’s estimation, three promotions in three years is pretty decent. I think the next two years will be significantly tougher.

“The same people have been involved since the start. I don’t think we would have achieved what we have achieved without these personalities involved. I always say rugby is about people and there’s never been a truer word said. There’s no way we would have had three promotions on the bounce without these people involved. It’s always been about player development. It’s never been about needing to win and win now. That came as a bi-product. It was always about, ‘We do this properly and we do it our way’.

“We have our own approach and that’s really paid dividends.”

Anne Murphy Durkan in action.

Mary has been making connections with universities in order to attract players in an area that already has Harlequins and Richmond. She convinced twelve girls from Bucks New University High Wycombe to come to Hazelwood, 30 miles away, to play a part in the Emeralds’ early success alongside more local establishments like Royal Holloway University.

The next step for Mary and the club now is to make London Irish the base for the Irish Qualified (IQ) Rugby Programme, which has been very successful at providing a fifth province at the Age Grade level for young men.

“Our real traction is going to come from building a very strong link with the Irish Exiles. We do a lot of work with the Irish Exiles programme and we’ll do a lot of work this year once we get back on the pitch rejuvenating the Irish Exiles programme for women.

“We’re working with them to be the platform or location where the Irish Exiles women’s programme is fielded from. We benefit from that, we get to showcase facilities when they run camps. It’s a very useful recruitment tool because people turning up for those camps have to be of Irish heritage. It’s a win-win. Apart from that, London Irish is where that programme should be run from.”

In addition, Fyfe is working to revive the relationship between London Irish and the IRFU to give Irish women that fifth province to push themselves forward for international rugby.

“We’re building a very strong link with Connacht, especially the Emerging Talent Programme Emer O’Dowd. We’re looking to build that into something that is very reciprocal. They come visit us, we go visit them but when they come visit, we have the Irish Exiles programme down.

“There’s a direct reference from both my side and their side. If they have players coming to the UK they say, ‘Go see Mary’. If I’ve got players going home I say, ‘Go see Emer’. We’re building something that says it is truly a home from home and that there is truly and genuinely a link between women’s rugby in the UK and women’s rugby in Ireland in the club London Irish.

“It’s also building our support base. We’re in no competition so there’s nothing to lose. We can only help each other really.”

Mary says they ‘broke the mould’ with Anne Murphy Durkan who also plays GAA with Tara

In 1998, Mary moved over to London to further her career. She has been involved with the Exiles for twelve years now. Her husband Paul Fyfe is head coach of London Irish Ladies and their two boys Ben and Josh play in the youth ranks.

“I came for six years,” she laughs. “That didn’t work out. It’s my home now with my boys but I’m still Irish. I’ll always be Irish.

“It is like a family.

“A lot of young Irish women come over to go to uni. I’m 22 years here but I still remember the first few months.

“The first place I went to was Tara GAA and it wasn’t because I was desperate to play GAA, it was becausae I was desperate to meet people. A club in that sense will always have that attraction. If you can package it properly and you’re attracting talent as well, you’ve got a fantastic formula.

“We don’t have any legacy. We don’t have any bad habits to break. We can do this now however we choose to do it and when we hit Tyrells in 2023, personally I want most of that team to be of Irish heritage.”

The current squad is very Irish but also diverse.

Mary explains: “We’ve a real mix. I’d say about 50% first generation and a lot of those girls are GAA players as well.

“The other 50% are a complete mixed bag but you would have a number of second generation in that mixed bag as well.

“If we build that Exiles link and we build that link over the water, I think some players might think, ‘You know what? I want to go to London Irish for a year just to play a different game and the opportunity for a higher level of rugby. Moving up through the ranks to be a Premiership club by 2023 would be very attractive.

“If you’re a 17, 18-year-old girl and you’ve got three years and you want to learn your trade with a club who are playing very high level rugby at championship level, London Irish is probably a very good place for you to be.”

Many of her players have come from London’s GAA scene. One even came from Mary’s days at Tara when she was fresh off the boat.

“I’ve got one of the Tara GAA girls playing for me now. There’s one girl I played Gaelic with back in ’98, Anne Murphy Durkan. She’s now my full back and she’s one my oldest players. They broke the mould with her. She’s a fire lady. She’s phenomenal.

“She saw my name on something. She went, ‘Oh m God, I can’t believe it’. I said, ‘Why don’t you come down?’ She never left. There’s quite a few GAA girls. Niamh McGrath plays GAA.”

Mary was involved in establishing the Gael Londain GAA club at Hazelwood in 2016. Although she has stepped away from her role as secretary, she is still involved.

“I’m a huge supporter and I’m there all the time but we said because of the link with London Irish Rugby Club that it was important that it wasn’t the same people again. We needed people in who weren’t otherwise engaged in the rugby club. We’ve got people down there now who are there solely for the GAA and they’re the people you really want involved in running it and managing it because then you have a very diverse footfall between the two clubs.”

The young girls of London Irish’s youth development.

In tandem with the adult game, Fyfe has opened the club up for U13s and U15s with the prospect of an U17s squad coming on-line in two years to feed into the senior set-up.

“There are U13s, U15s and hopefully we have the start of an U17s and that is exciting for me as well because even if we only have the start of an Under 17s, as long as we can engage those girls and keep them engaged, in two years time they’re fielding as adults, as a championship team maybe. That is grass roots rugby.

“Engaging the youth is a challenge. We’re doing okay on numbers but it’s a constant struggle. John Hunter made an excellent point I thought which is: We are doing well in this game despite the educational disparity between what’s offered to boys and what’s happened to girls in schools whether they’re private or public schools.

“Rugby is not on the curriculum for many schools at secondary level. For girls, it’s hockey and netball. Until we can change that, it’s always going to be a difficult sell over and above two very popular sports.

“I think there’s a cultural aspect to why it isn’t offered in schools. They might offer a term of rugby but it’s not managed or coached or pushed in the same way.”

Mary is now looking to recruit more talent as the club looks to compete in Championship South East next season but stresses the importance of holding onto what she has which she describes as being something special.

However, she is finding the club’s success is helping with this objective.

“Winning hasn’t hurt.

“I’m normally out scouting this time of year looking for players. Now I’m having players approach me which is fantastic. It’s very nice for them to be able to say they’re playing championship rugby as opposed to league rugby.

“London Irish is all about being that fifth province, being that home from home. We are working with the Irish Exiles. We are doing everything we can to stay involved with the IRFU, we are working with Connacht rugby.

“We can only be of support and mutual benefit to each other and that’s on the field and off the field.”

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