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‘Girls’ rugby in West Cork is growing stronger’

March 29th, 2024 1:45 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

‘Girls’ rugby in West Cork is growing stronger’ Image
Sacred Heart Clonakilty’s Kate Nolan lifts the trophy after their Pinergy Munster Schools Girls Senior Cup final win. (Photo: INPHO/Ken Sutton)

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As Clonakilty RFC plays three Munster Cup girls’ final on Saturday, Kieran McCarthy looks at the growth of girls’ rugby in West Cork


THERE will be a mass exodus from Clonakilty on Saturday morning as a sizeable chunk of the town’s population have a very good reason for relocating to Virgin Media Park for the day – THREE of Clonakilty Rugby Club’s girls’ teams are playing Munster cup finals.

‘It’s amazing,’ beams Vicky McCabe, the Clon PRO who has been involved with girls’ rugby in the club from the start.

‘We are all super excited for Saturday, and hopefully we will have a huge crowd there to cheer on the girls.’

All signs suggest that Clonakilty RFC supporters will make themselves heard in the city, to such an extent that if their teams get the job done, the cheers will be heard all the way at home in Clon.

The U14s are first up in their cup final, playing Richmond at 12.30pm. It will be the turn of the U16s then when they battle with Killarney/Listowel/Iveragh Eagles in their cup decider at 2.30pm. Next into action will be Clon’s U18s in the U18.5 cup final against Killarney.

It’s a testament to the Trojan work in Clonakilty RFC that three girls’ teams have qualified for Munster cup finals, but it’s also the latest indicator that girls’ rugby in the West Cork region is ready to explode.

‘The outlook in West Cork is extremely positive right now,’ says Bantry Bay RFC’s Damien Hicks, who began a new role as a Munster Rugby Women’s Development Officer in January. His job is to help grow, develop and promote the women’s game within the region by working with clubs, schools and communities. Hicks is pushing an open door in West Cork. 

‘This is a really positive time for girls’ rugby in the area. The Clonakilty U16 girls’ team that will play in the cup final this weekend, they beat Dunmanway-Bantry Bay in the semi-final of this competition, and that was a real battle,’ he notes.

‘Look at the success of Sacred Heart Secondary School from Clonakilty in the Munster Schools’ Girls Cup finals recently, everything is pointing towards girls’ rugby in West Cork growing stronger.’

Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí’s Muireann McCarthy in action against Sacred Heart Clonakilty in the all West Cork Pinergy Munster Schools Girls Junior Cup final.


Hicks is right to reference Sacred Heart’s incredible Munster Schools’ Girls Cup senior and junior double success. That was a flag-in-the-ground moment for the Clonakilty school as it won both titles for the first time, but also an important moment for girls’ rugby in the region. The junior final was an all West Cork affair, as Sacred Heart defeated Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí (19-0) before the Clon school beat Coláiste Muire Ennis (20-10) in the senior final to clinch the dream double.

‘It’s brilliant especially since it’s only our second year of playing school rugby,’ senior coach Rob Barry remarked afterwards, before highlighting Clonakilty RFC’s role in the success. ‘All this was made possible by the work done by the club teams and coaches. Having coached them to such a high standard, it was easy for us to come in and just take them as a unit into the school and just work with them there.’

Sacred Heart is benefiting from the success of girls’ rugby in Clonakilty RFC; the home club to West Cork’s greatest-ever women’s rugby player, the World Cup veteran and Grand Slam-winning Laura Guest. This club also saw Maeve Quirke and Eimear O'Sullivan win Irish caps, too. Perhaps there are more to come because Clon’s girls’ numbers are the envy of many clubs – 33 at U12 level, 37 with the U14s, 42 with the U16s and 31 with the U18s. That’s 143 girls between the four age grades. Add in the adult women’s set-up (28 players) that returned this season and the minis section (53), and that’s 224 girls and women playing rugby with Clonakilty. Incredible numbers. 

Clonakilty RFC's U18.5 girls' team before their Munster Cup semi-final win against Ballincollig. They play the cup final this Saturday.


‘Looking at Clonakilty for a moment, they are reaping the rewards of all their hard work, and they are pushing girls’ rugby locally to a new level; their playing numbers are phenomenal,’ Damien Hicks says. A number of Clon girls are also involved in various Munster development panels – Roxanne Llewellyn, Leona Arra, Clodagh McCarthy, Rachel Twomey, Ciara O’Driscoll, Jo McCaughey, Elsa Quirke, Niamh Hilliard, Julie Finn, Maya McMahon and Erin McCarthy. It’s a story replicated across the region. 

As well as Roxanne Llewellyn, the Bantry Bay RFC trio of Niamh McCarthy, Grace Kingston and Muireann McCarthy were all involved with the Munster U18 girls in this year’s interpros, as was the highly-rated Kilbrittain teenager Niamh O’Mahony, who has played with Bandon RFC since she was ten years old. They are all underage again for next year. 

The signs are promising, and, similar to the men’s rugby boom in West Cork, the pathway from here to Munster is clear. While we have had West Cork women on the Munster adult women’s team in recent seasons – Enya Breen, Gillian Coombes, Laura Sheehan, Abbie Salter-Townshend, and Saskia Wycherley is another to watch – the conveyor belt could be about to pick up pace.

‘The pathway is clear and for girls who want to push on, they can see how they can achieve what they want to,’ says Hicks, who coached two local women now involved with the Irish Six Nations women’s panel – Skibbereen’s Enya Breen and Andrea Stock with Durrus, and both played locally with Bantry Bay RFC.

‘When I coached Enya and Andrea in Bantry many years ago, while there was a pathway then it wasn’t as clear as it is now where you have the development squads at U17 and U18 levels with Munster. To see the likes of Niamh O’Mahony and Grace Kingston in there and playing in the interpros, that’s very encouraging,’ Hicks says.

He adds: ‘There are more opportunities now to play girls’ rugby than we had in the past, with the schools and the clubs both offering a route in. It gives girls the option to give it a try and see if they like it.’

The growth and success of girls’ rugby in Clonakilty RFC offers encouragement to other clubs in the region. Vicky McCabe remembers how it all started nine years ago. Her daughter was seven years old and played minis rugby, which was girls and boys together.

‘We had five or six girls playing with the minis boys and they would get upset because the boys wouldn’t pass to them, so we said we would set up an individual girls’ minis teams which was very much against the grain of what clubs did at the time; clubs used to play girls and boys mixed up until the age of 12,’ McCabe recalls. 

‘We struggled to find games for our girls' minis because all the other clubs had the girls and boys together at minis. We held tough and the numbers grew and grew. Now our minis girls are playing blitzes all the time, against the likes of Skibbereen and Kinsale and Bandon and Bantry. We have found that numbers do increase as girls get older.’

To highlight the eye-popping numbers Clonakilty RFC have, last season they had to split their squad of 48 U16 girls into two teams – and they ended up playing one another in the league semi-final!

With Munster Rugby intent on growing the women’s games, West Cork clubs will benefit here too. Damien Hicks is now one of four Munster Rugby Women’s Development Officers, working alongside Rosemary Dillon, Willie Shubart and Ken Imbusch. There used to be just two, he points out.

‘The schools and clubs are broken up into different areas in the province and we can service them better now; there is certainly room for growth in West Cork and we’ll see that over the next few years,’ Hicks believes, and he has his own ideas to develop girls’ rugby even further locally. Like Vicky McCabe, Hicks is full of praise for the volunteers on the ground in the local clubs and schools, these are the people turning the wheel in a juggernaut that is picking up pace.

Look at the build-it-and-they-will-come approach that worked so well in Skibbereen RFC, as underage teams created a conveyor belt that led to an adult women’s team which won three Munster trophies in a memorable 2021/22 season. That kept women’s rugby on the map locally. Now Clonakilty can keep local girls’ rugby on the map again this Saturday. Whatever happens, girls’ rugby in West Cork is about to move to the next level.

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