When Nia Lydon from Co Galway started playing rugby at the age of five, she had no choice but to join a team full of boys.
“At under sevens, they would never pass it [the ball] to us,” she recalls.
Today, however, Nia is encouraging the next generation of female rugby players as an assistant coach with her club.
“Even seeing the difference from when I started to play, there are so many young girls playing, it’s really nice to see they have the passion for it that will let them stick at it,” she says.
Nia is just one of the female players to benefit from the decision of Tuam and Oughterard rugby clubs to join forces to provide a platform for girls and women to play rugby at a competitive level in rural Ireland.
The two clubs merged to create a girls’ section eight years ago. At the time they created an under 16s team with only 13 players between them. They now have five teams at different age levels, empowering young women to get active and involved in the sport.
Over the years, both clubs had some female participation, but never enough players to enter separate girls’ teams into competitive leagues.
Having three daughters himself, Owen Lydon – a member of the Tuam rugby club – along with his counterpart, Norman Tierney, decided to join forces to create the girls’ rugby team.
Both clubs are still operating independently (and against each other competitively), but they are combined through the new Tuam-Oughterard girls’ teams.
“The numbers just keep on coming, we now have u14s, u16s, two u18s teams and an adult ladies’ team. Most of whom have come up through the different age sections,” explains Owen.
With Oughterard being over an hour away in Connemara, it is hard to imagine how the logistics work. The women’s team mostly train in Tuam as there are lights and better conditions for the darker months. The u16s and u18s try to train together once a month, but outside of that, they train separately either in Tuam or Oughterard.
Last year was the first year Tuam-Oughterard entered a senior women’s rugby team into the Connaught League and they were delighted to come out on top.
The u16s and u18s divisions both won their leagues last year, and with matches starting back in September, pre-season training has already begun for next year’s season (if anyone is thinking of giving it a go).
Challenges to a rural club
One of the main challenges for the club is retaining players after they complete their Leaving Cert and move to pursue further education.
“At the end of last season, 10 [girls] of our u18s team were playing on the women’s team as well. We had an exceptional group. The disadvantage to that is a lot of the girls were doing their Leaving Cert and we’re not sure where they are going to college,” says Owen.
As a result, a lot of the girls tend to move to bigger clubs in Galway, Dublin and Limerick, depending on where they get their college place.
“Because our girls are so high achieving, we have a lot of representative girls who are playing Irish u18s and Irish u20s, these [bigger clubs] are watching them and can offer them scholarships etc, but we are happy for them, we want the best for them,”
Owen hopes that when they have finished college, they will return to Tuam-Oughterard.
Another challenge for a rural club like this is finding coaches and volunteers.
The u14s have a separate female coach and Owen oversees the u16, u18s and ladies’ teams, with help from other coaches.
“I had a daughter playing u16s, u18s and my oldest ones were on the ladies’ teams. I was going to be at the training anyway so there was no point sitting in the car looking at them,” he explains.
As for encouraging girls to get involved in sport, Owen believes there are multiple benefits.
“All these studies show especially with girls who are playing sports, they are achieving more in school,” he emphasises.
“We would pride ourselves on the philosophy that we set up: we wanted them to have enough fun that they come back next week.”