Kate Sheehan remembers the before time. As a young girl she went down to Young Munster to play with her brothers, but at 12 there was no place for her and she had to wait until she could play senior rugby to get another shot with UL Bohs.
he Munster hooker remembers her mother having to tailor a provincial jersey for her because they didn’t sell them for girls or kids. She recalls going straight into a dressing room full of internationals as a teenager and learning the game as she went.
Now, when she looks at the new faces in the Munster dressing room she sees players who are coming in fully formed. Girls and women who can earn a living playing rugby in this country and whose games are broadcast live on national TV.
The picture isn’t perfect as everyone knows, but progress is progress.
“They’re coming in at 18 and they can play. At the start of our AIL season Kate Flannery was thrown straight in, she just slotted in,” Sheehan says.
“She evolved as the season went on, but you could tell they’ve played rugby before. It’s not people starting at 21, 22, 23. They were in playing minis.
“You can see the great work that’s going on in the provinces, in Munster with the Ennis girls, Ballina, Fethard . . . it might look like one club, but other clubs are feeding into it and the girls are immensely proud of their clubs and representing their clubs for their provinces is an honour.
“Last year was probably a good turning point, when TG4 came on board it meant young girls were watching on TV.
“When I was growing up, I used to go to Thomond Park with my Dad and at the time you couldn’t buy a women’s jersey. My mother used to crop the O’Neill’s jersey for me.
“Even then, there wasn’t big crowds because everyone was out at Garryowen and Young Munster games. We’re behind the men, but we’re on the right trajectory.”
As a result of the lack of a pathway in the 2000s, Sheehan was nearly lost to the game.
“My brother (David) played AIL with Young Munster and I went out to Young Munster as a child doing the minis but when you were 12 it was like ‘okay, bye’. There was nowhere to go after that for me,” she recalls.
“So, I stopped playing.
“I was 16 and just by chance my uncle was working with Jason Enright, he was the manager at the time and he said ‘bring her out to training’. I remember feeling totally overwhelmed, to be honest, but the girls were great, they just took you under their wing and showed you the ropes.
“We’ve always had an environment where as much as we’ve got great coaching it’s very much player-driven. We’re constantly driving each other. I’ve made unbelievable friends over the years. I’m 18 or 19 years playing with Bohs and they’re the best memories.
“I don’t know where my life would be if I didn’t pick up the ball.
“Anybody thinking about it or considering sending their daughter out I think it could be the best decision you could ever make because regardless of whether they go on to play for Munster or Ireland, it’s the club scene, that’s the craic.
“It’s the friends. It’s a massive circle of people that will support you and you can take that into any aspect of life. Yeah, it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
On the eve of Munster’s interpro opener against Ulster, Sheehan sat down and watched the TG4 documentary about the history of women’s rugby in Ireland and it brought home how far the game has come.
“You can see the evolution. We’re not where we need to be, but there are things happening and we’re seeing that,” she says.
“The media coverage has been really good. Young girls can turn that on and then want to go to their clubs and say ‘I want to do that’ on a Sunday morning.
“It’s driving more girls into the game.”
On Saturday, she and Munster will be looking to put on a show when they take on Leinster in what will be, for all intents and purposes, the decider of this year’s interpro championship.
“We know it’s going to take a full 80-minute performance against Leinster and any mistakes we make we know they’ll punish us,” she says.
“So that’s our focus this week. It’s the win, it’s not the overall championship. It’s just coming away out of Musgrave Park satisfied with our performance.”