Earlier this month, London Irish announced their plans to launch a topflight women’s team for the first time in their history. Although the club won’t find out the result of their application to join the Allianz Premier 15s’ next intake of sides until March 2023, Director of Women’s Rugby Mary Fyfe says that all the plans are well in place to ensure that the club leaves no stone unturned.
“We had the opportunity to make a bid in 2019 during the last intake of sides, but I just didn’t feel we were ready. Had we applied last time then we probably would have been forcing things and I felt it was so important to find the right people to take the bid forward.”
One of these people that Fyfe believes can add value to the club’s bid is their acquisition of former England Red Roses assistant coach Graham Smith, who was part of England’s world cup victory in 2014.
“Like everything in life, sometimes it’s all about timing. Graham got back from his stint coaching in Barcelona in January, and he was keen to come onboard, so it was almost a no brainer. He brings credibility and the ability to give us real confidence in what we’re doing internally, but also from the outside it shows that we’re serious in our ambitions for a strong topflight women’s side.
“In terms of coaching in the women’s game in the UK, with the exception of probably someone like Gary Street, there are few that surpass Graham Smith and what was really striking to me during our initial conversations was not only his passion for the game but his passion for the women’s game first and foremost.”
It isn’t just on the pitch that London Irish have a strong plan in place, they’ve also enhanced their longstanding relationship with St Mary’s University by naming them as their education partner. Fyfe explained why the club chose the Twickenham based university.
“As long as I’ve known St Mary’s there’s always been an Irish leaning affiliation with the University and so I felt there was a natural synergy between us. It’s a local university that’s right on our doorstep and it has real ambition. St Mary’s have always been best in class at whatever they put their minds to. We already know what they’ve achieved in their athletics programme, they’re doing it now with football and we’re hoping that we can help them do that with rugby.
“Whenever I’ve spoken to anyone at St Mary’s I can sense their enthusiasm for this relationship. I was speaking to Dr Abbe Brady (Head of Psychology and Pedagogic Science) and her excitement for this partnership was palpable on the phone. She and everyone at St Mary’s shares our values so I think things will work well.”
Fyfe was also very clear in explaining just how beneficial a clear link between the club and a university was for both the players and London Irish.
“It’s hugely important that we give players opportunities to explore things outside the game. Young athletes right now are rightly conscious that a sport’s career only lasts a finite amount of time and they know that they’ll need a career post rugby. Establishing this partnership with St Mary’s shows that for us the welfare and well-being of the athlete is just as important as their opportunity to perform for either the university or London Irish.
“The London Irish brand is well established, and the badge will carry us far, but we think this partnership ensures we really come into our own. It shows we’re trying to build the whole person rather than just an athlete. It helps bring a real community feel and we think for those coming from Ireland or within the UK, that it makes us a genuine alterative to the likes of Hartpury or Loughborough.”
With all the dedication and thoroughness of Fyfe and her team, should their application to join the Allianz Premier 15s in two years be successful, it’s no surprise that they have ambitions to hit the ground running.
“We’ve come on a long journey before making this bid and as I said, we possibly could have entered in 2019 but we chose to wait, so we’ve been building ever since then. Presuming we enter in 2023, we’re not taking part to make up the numbers. We’d be hoping to be in the top half, if not the top four and we want to be a side to be reckoned with.
“I don’t mean to sound arrogant when I say this, but it’s just that we’ve done the groundwork and invested in people and strategy, so I think our targets are achievable.”
Cover image credit: Lawrence OP