DENIS HURLEY talks all things rugby with Munster women’s head coach, Laura Guest from Clonakilty
LAURA Guest’s two seasons as Munster women’s head coach have seen nobody else garner more points than the province in the interprovincial championship.
Unfortunately, while 2017 saw Munster take the honours – having finished third the year before – this time round they were pipped by Leinster on points-difference. A 24-7 win over Connacht was followed by a 40-20 victory away to Ulster, with Leinster having beaten both as well, making the final game a winner-take-all tie.
There was nothing in the clash at Energia Park (formerly Donnybrook Stadium), with the teams finishing level at 14-14, which meant that the home side took the honours, with a scoring difference of 64 compared to 37 for Guest’s team.
While it was disappointing not to retain their title, the Clonakilty native was still able to take positives from how the campaign went.
‘It’s hard to take when you finish unbeaten,’ she says.
‘It was kind of the opposite of the 2017-18 interpros, we were beaten in the first round by Connacht and then won the second and third games, we beat Leinster to win it.
‘This time, we were coming in after a good win over Ulster and we were confident but they had whitewashed Connacht [47-0] and we knew it was going to be really tough.
‘It’s always tight when we play them, last year it was 11-5, this time we were marginally behind for the majority of it and they knew that the draw would be enough.
‘Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get the winning score but we weren’t far away.’
Another good sign came from how the squad was refreshed from 2017.
‘We had quite a few new faces,’ Guest says, ‘five of the previous years U18s were called up but that didn’t upset the balance or anything, it was quite straightforward, really.
‘What really makes my job easier is that everybody wants to play, the ambition and the passion of wanting to represent Munster is there.
‘There was a full buy-in from the players, they didn’t mind where they had to travel from for training and matches and it was same for the backroom staff.
‘We had Eimear Considine and Niamh Briggs back this year and that was a huge boost, it allowed us to kick on and raise the standards. Having five young faces then in a squad of 26 created a lot of energy and brought a different buzz to the set-up.’
While the men’s scene is completely professional, the women’s interprovincial landscape is like the old, amateur system, where players are attached to their clubs for the bulk of the season but are called up for the series of three games. Last year, the interpros were in the first three weekends in December but this time round they were at the beginning of September, something Guest feels was more advantageous.
‘The timing this year was great for us,’ she says, ‘it gave us full access to the girls and they were fresh and able to focus fully on it. They’re a fantastic group to be involved with, it’s amateur in the best sense and everybody wants that red jersey, the passion and heart for the province is great.’
A potential drawback in terms of the condensed nature of the schedule is that the team won’t be together again until next season’s interpros, but again it’s something that Guest works to her and the team’s advantage.
‘That’s it for the most part,’ she says, ‘unless there’s a touring side or something like that.
‘The short season means that we can be together and the girls can give it everything, it’s not like a long league campaign where form dips in and out. It’s almost like a cup campaign, it brings a lot of excitement.’
And her thoughts on the future and staying in the role?
‘It’s a little too early to tell,’ Guest says.
‘It’s not a formality yet, I’ll sit down with the branch and see what they want. A big thing for me is that I have a team with me, an assistant coach, a physio, a strength and conditioning coach and a manager. I’d want all of them to be involved again, or minimal change if there has to be.
‘It hasn’t been decided yet but it’s not a problem, I’m more than busy.’
Being busy revolves around her day job as a teacher in Midleton College, where she has coached the school’s senior rugby team for the past seven years, having also been involved with Highfield.
While she’s not the only female coach of a male team, it’s still a rarity but it’s not something that bothers her.
‘Patrique Kelly has been involved with Rockwell too,’ she says, ‘I think it’s nice for the boys to have that kind of diversity.
‘The boys in Midleton are fantastic and, to be honest, they don’t even notice that it’s an issue. I want to be seen as a coach, it’s not about gender.
‘We’re a B-level school, we should be there or thereabouts in that. There’s good quality there but it’s a small school and approximately 50 percent of the population is female.
‘I enjoy it very much, I get to learn from the boys as much as anything. I try to get them to play with a little less structure and give the boys free rein to play what they see. It’s a great environment to be involved in, it’s just raw rugby and they learn from what they do.
‘There are some very talented people there and they’re playing some incredible off-the-cuff attacking. The main thing is that they’re interested, motivated and willing.’
Those terms could certainly be applied to her and she has an open mind about what the future could hold.
‘I certainly would be open to other opportunities,’ she says, ‘I’m not sure where the ceiling is.
‘To be involved with the provincial senior side is quite good going, I think it’s important that I’d stay on the amateur side.
‘I’m a teacher first and foremost, what would fit with that, I’m not sure what’s out there but we’ll see.’