"We’re entitled to nothing and we’re grateful for everything"
According to Ireland women’s head coach Greg McWilliams, this is something that is often discussed in his team
After the publication of an article in the Telegraph which outlined systemic issues within the IRFU, they are far above McWilliams and he shouldn’t have to take the brunt of the alleged failings of scenarios beyond his control, but the phrasing used in his recent press conference certainly raised a few eyebrows.
Firstly, I find it astounding that the theory of gratitude somehow still plagues the narrative surrounding top-level women’s sport. It is nearly impossible to believe that the same quote from McWilliams would be one that would be attributed to the mentality of any men’s team - be that international or club - across nearly every given sport.
In particular, that of the Ireland men’s rugby team and especially given their recent Grand Slam success that the union have been more than happy to celebrate while allegations made by an anonymous player in the recent Telegraph article suggest an 'uphill battle' for the women's side.
“Who gives a f*** about women’s rugby?” said a prominent figure in Irish rugby at a president’s dinner last month in Dublin.— Fi Tomas (@fi_tomas_) April 13, 2023
Players denied protein. 'Horror stories' over selection. A special report on the sexism that pervades @IrishRugby*
*in 2023 https://t.co/gj6OSGzcwf
When it comes to what Ireland's women are entitled to, it’s a whole lot more than nothing.
As rugby players representing their country, they’re entitled to respect from their union, they’re entitled to a voice, they’re entitled to fair pay, and they’re entitled to so much more than what they’ve had to put up with.
There is a difference between being entitled, and what you’re entitled to, but personally hearing the words ‘we’re entitled to nothing’ from McWilliams was disappointing.
It’s also infuriating to hear this being said because by putting the message out that an elite women’s team should be entitled to nothing, and grateful for everything, holds significance. In my view, the societal impact of reinforcing this is detrimental to the general view of women’s sport, let alone the seemingly already warped views of the IRFU.
Ireland’s female players have been banging on a closed door for far too long, and it’s time that they were given the respect they deserve.
What is additionally concerning is the context in which this was all discussed. While in a press conference on Thursday afternoon, after the Telegraph report had broken in the morning, McWilliams said: "This [the Telegraph article] is an education.
"That player could have been someone who's 19 years of age who's never been a professional before, who's never been in the spotlight before.
"They'll learn the ways of being a professional athlete where it's really important. We always talk about 'we're entitled to nothing and we're grateful for everything' and I think if you have that as part of your DNA, you're going to go places and you're going to make mistakes along the way and our job is to make sure that we get better at that. So it's not a concern, but it's something you want to make sure that you don't see too often because otherwise, it is an issue."
Whether this tone was intended or not from McWilliams, the player who chose to share their story was infantilised with the suggestion that it could have been a young player and therefore one who must not yet be aware of what it’s like to be a professional athlete.
Additionally, the head coach suggested that this was an ‘education’ for other players. It seems however in this scenario, that the players are not the ones needing an education, but rather the union.
McWilliams went on to say his initial reaction to the article was to state that the findings were historic: "I read the article. I think it would be wrong of me to not read the article but I think lots of it is historic, it is the same things that you could have talked about last year.
"When I started in 2021, everything that we talked about, we’re on track and that’s all we can focus on. It’s an interesting article but it’s nearly irrelevant at this stage."
This in itself was a disappointing start to the press conference. Two issues highlighted in the Telegraph article - the change from white to blue shorts over period concerns and alleged comments made about the women's game at a president's dinner in Dublin - happened this year.
The issues surrounding protein provision happened last year. I would argue that they are certainly not historic, nor are they irrelevant, and it doesn’t seem like the issues being tackled in the report are seen to be nearly irrelevant.
McWilliams also denied that the IRFU is a sexist organisation saying: “No, of course it isn’t.”
The patriarchal nature of the IRFU is one that was brought even further into the spotlight in the Telegraph article, with it being described by John Cronin as having “an old-boys culture.”
Whether intentionally or not, McWilliams didn't help detract from that narrative by describing his team as his children which left many squirming on social media. He said: “Without getting too corny about it, I'm like their Dad, and they're my daughters. You care for them and you want them to do well.”
I’m sorry what ??— Florence Williams (@FlorenceW94) April 14, 2023
These are professional athletes who want unbiased leadership & direction, not a Dad… https://t.co/fZlgjz1BQG
While the sentiment appeared to be one of showing he cares for the players, the seemingly patronising phrasing was one which only perpetuated the patriarchal underpinnings of the IRFU.
Even glimmers of positive steps forward within the squad - the recent change in the colour of players’ shorts - appeared to not be as positive as it seemed.
In the Telegraph article, it was made apparent that the decision to change the players' shorts was made without consulting the team, appearing to be more of a publicity stunt.
When the announcement came out about the Irish shorts, I for one assumed that this was because it was a change that the team had expressed a desire for.
Hearing that they were not consulted yet again indicates a lack of respect, and that the IRFU would rather promote themselves outwardly to be supporting their women’s team rather than actually having conversations with the players at the heart of it and providing them with any meaningful support.
While the Welsh Rugby Union have had their own issues uncovered in the past few months, their approach to supporting the women’s team through period tracking for injury prevention, as well as providing them with the support to minimise the worry of leaking when on their periods, should be an example to follow.
McWilliams once more expressed his thoughts on this subject: "In my head and where my brain is going, that for me is something that isn't really concerning. I'm more concerned about making sure that our players' skill level is improving, that they're going to be repeatable, to go for long distances with ball in play, to understand their role. They're the things that are really important to me.
“Again, whether you're wearing different coloured shorts, I'm more concerned about our performance and getting players to own that.”
With this issue and many others, McWilliams promised to be better. To his credit, he spoke about being better at things that have gone wrong in the past.
Speaking again about the shorts, he said: “It's one of those things, let's own it, let's be better at that, let's consult our players more.
"If that's something that the players are unhappy with, we'll talk about that on Monday in our review. We'll make sure again, and that's my learning, players need to know about that, but it's something that wasn't really anything that I saw as a big deal to be honest.”
In relation to the situation surrounding protein reported in the Telegraph, McWilliams again said that he'd 'own it' if it was something he'd got wrong.
The Ireland Women's squad has chosen to drop their traditional white shorts and instead make a permanent switch to navy ahead of the #TikTokW6N.— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) March 14, 2023
The move, which is led by @canterburyNZ and the IRFU, comes as a response to players’ feedback about period anxieties ??#IrishRugby
He mentioned: "If that's something that I did wrong, I'm not aware of it and I'll own that. Again we're always trying to evolve and get better and that's something that I was unaware of so obviously I need to be better and be on top of things like that.
“Again you can only control what you do next and we're really clinical at trying to create an Irish team that's going to be competitive. You've seen the young squad that have so much heart and they're working hard…The story that happened pre-Japan, that’s something we just need to be better at if that’s the case and we’ll own that, of course.”
He spoke about ‘owning it’ in terms of righting the wrongs, but now more than ever, it is imperative that he continues to own it as a coach and be the voice and pillar for real, meaningful change and support for his team.
I can only hope that the promises to do better are carried forward and that the forum for players to express their thoughts within the team continues to be encouraged and respected.
Phrasing is so important, and while McWilliams is not responsible for the reported wider proceedings within the IRFU, he is responsible for the messaging that he puts out.