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Twenty Years And Counting For Shannon Women

Twenty Years And Counting For Shannon Women

The Shannon Women’s team are celebrating 20 years of rugby this season. Shannon scribe Andrew McNamara takes a look down memory lane.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6…This is not the start of a countdown per say, but one of my earlier memories of the Shannon Women’s rugby team and one of their fundraisers. 10 pints for a £2 stake. Not a bad return even in new money.

It was pretty much bog standard for a trip to Shannon’s other ‘clubhouse’ on a Sunday evening that you would have a book of tickets launched in your face with a doe-eyed starlet of the Women’s team asking politely, ‘Will you support the Shannon Ladies?’

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If the softly, softly approach did not work, in came the enforcers and the jangle of coins in your pocket would be reduced by a few to support the cause.

I was lucky on that one occasion, and the top prize of 10 pints was the spoils. I only managed the five before the Sunday closing time came around.

As for the matter of the other five, sure they were downed after that official closing time with the sound of singing ‘young wans’ (and not so young in fairness) lasting well beyond the sound of Vinny locking the doors shut.

It was a typical Sunday night really in the ‘office of the Nineties’. Packed, with teams that had played their games hours earlier; the locals in the back end and the Shannon folk out the front.

And then we had the Women’s team always leading the merriment. They were a force of nature when they were a collective. They had become embedded in the Shannon ethos, and played with as much pride and passion as any other side in the club.

It is hard to imagine that when the women of the world demanded equality in the male-dominated society through the likes of the Suffragettes at the turn of the 20th century and then decades later the Women’s lib movement that sport  could turn out to be a beneficiary.

Although Women’s rugby is now a huge sport in Ireland, its roots in this country were founded with little steps rather than huge leaps and bounds.

It was really only in the early 1990s that the sport in this county took hold and even then, it was only tentatively explored with a couple of teams formed.

Worldwide the game has its origins nearly as far back as the male equivalent, but it was a somewhat clandestine affair in those days. Slowly though, mainly through universities, women began to get recognition particularly in the 1960s, but still, Ireland lagged way behind when it came to embracing the game.  

Just how Shannon came to have a Women’s team is really quite simple. We were always considered a family orientated club, but in fairness the thoughts of having a Women’s team never really entered the sanctum of the committee room. So it was the women themselves that came up with the notion.

Back to the famed ‘office pub’, and a group of young women who had Shannon blood running through their veins sat, and hatched a plan to form a team after an All-Ireland League game 20 years ago.

They had followed their fathers and mothers to the Munster Senior Cup games of the late Seventies and early Eighties and many had fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and even husbands play for the Parish club.

The spirit of Shannon RFC was very much in their very being and their commitment to the club could never be questioned. Those that were around in those early days remember tentative talks amongst themselves about actually forming a team.

Old Crescent were one of the first women’s teams in Limerick but without anyone to play, they encouraged their rugby rivals to form a team.

That night in the office bar after weeks and probably months of procrastination, those adventurous young women decided that the time was right and they would give it a go. Sure if nothing else, they would have a bit of a laugh. Names that have been, and are still very much ingrained in Shannon were involved in those early talks.

The Crosses, Michelle and Francis, whose uncles Connie and Eamonn Browner were Shannon stars of the Fifties, the Lawlers, Sinead and Lizzette, whose uncle was one of the greatest Shannon men ever, the late Colm Tucker, Sarah Deegan whose brother John was a current senior player at the time, then you had the Browns, first Rosemary and later Olivia, a Shannon family if ever there was one.

There were more eager young women besides, all anxious to wear a black and blue jersey.

Okay, so they had the notion, the enthusiasm and the big plan, but one thing was missing, a coach. They turned to a friend of a friend who was a recently retired senior player and with a small bit of persuasion a certain Geoff Moylan took up the challenge.

It turned out to be one of the ladies’ better decisions, not just for their own needs, but we all know what Geoff went onto achieve with the club in later years.

The initial scepticism that Geoff had was soon dispelled when he saw the sheer enthusiasm the ladies had. The first training session saw over 20 players involved, and from little acorns grow mighty oaks.

It was six months later that the Shannon Women’s team played their first game against Old Crescent, and from those humble beginnings where style and substance probably played second fiddle to enthusiasm, the Women’s team grew from strength to strength.

Despite the zeal and zest demonstrated by the burgeoning Women’s team, it would be fair to say that their formation was greeted with a certain degree of scepticism from the male-dominated club committee.

They were given the latitude to use the club facilities and the like, but most sceptics deemed their formation as a flash in the pan, with little hope of longevity. Thankfully, how wrong they were.

They did not count on the fact that the sprit and tenacity of Shannon’s generations of male players could be equalled – after all, Shannon blood is Shannon blood, it does not matter who it flows through.

Gradually over a period of a few years, the Women’s team were attracting new members, again a mixture of entrenched Shannon folk and newcomers to the sport. All played with equal passion, and the skill levels began to rise.

The second division of the All-Ireland League was their domain for a few years, but in the season of 2005/6 they finally got the opportunity to play at the top tier of Women’s rugby when, after a superb season, they were promoted to Division 1.

It was already an enormous achievement to reach such a status in their few short years of playing, but once they dined at that top table, they flourished and became an enormous force to be reckoned with as the years progressed.

The new crop of players were getting noticed as some of the founding members slipped into the background, but were still very much involved.

The emerging interprovincial scene allowed some of the Shannon women to don the red jersey, but a moment of immense pride came in 1998 when both Joss Hannrahan and Oliva Brown were the first Shannon Women players to be awarded an international cap.

The achievements kept coming. They were the first Women’s team to play at Thomond Park when they took on the mighty Wasps from London in the late Nineties. But, perhaps the pinnacle of their achievements right up to the present day came in 2001 when they captured the All-Ireland League Division 1 title by beating Highfield 12-0 at Thomond Park.

It was such a remarkable achievement for a team that did not even exist a decade previously and amongst the winners on the day were a few of the original stalwarts, including try scorer Frances Crosse.

That win was far from a bolt from the blue. The previous season the women were disappointed when they lost out in the AIL final, but no doubt the experience stood them in good stead for the following year.

But there were just a few of those original pioneering Shannon women by the time the new millennium had arrived. A whole new raft of talented young women had taken over the mantle and they were to become one of the top sides in the country for a number of years.

More historic Shannon names joined the ranks such as Rosie Foley and Rachel Tucker who were to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and join the international ranks. Indeed, the list of international luminaries was growing each year, and with success on the field the Shannon Women’s team was an attractive side for anyone to join.

In 2000 a young lady returning from her studies in England who had already amassed over 30 caps for Ireland decided to join Shannon upon her return. Fiona Steed was without question one of the finest exponents of Women’s rugby that this country has ever produced and quite rightly she is regarded as one of Ireland’s truly world class rugby players.

Her contribution to Shannon Women’s rugby was enormous and her silky skills and ferocious ability were a joy to watch. She inspired those around her, and many of her Shannon colleagues went on to join her on international duty in the years she lined out for the club.

The beginning of a fierce rivalry with UL Bohemians was festering away for a few seasons at this time and the local derbies were keenly contested games. For a few years there was no doubt as to who the top two teams were in the country as Shannon and UL Bohemians contested three All-Ireland finals in succession.

However, it was UL Bohemians that were without question the better team, if only by small margins in those years. Indeed, UL Bohs have been almost peerless in the Women’s game, recently and remarkably winning their 11th title in 12 seasons.

The on field rivalry of the early 2000s was exacerbated somewhat by the fact that quite a number of Shannon players, including capped players, had moved across to the University-based side which always added an extra dimension to the proceedings.

It was without doubt the most successful period in the short history of the Shannon Women’s team and it would be great to say that the success continued unabated, but alas we cannot.

There have been many inspirational figures for the Shannon women, from their first coach, Geoff Moylan, to many others that have shared their knowledge of the game, but in this writer’s humble opinion few would match the levels of enthusiasm than a man from New Zealand.

Quite how Rohan West became involved with the club, I am not too clear on, but one thing that is certain, he guided the Shannon Women’s team with enormous commitment until work saw him move across the water.

By that stage there was an underage girls side up and running and as the years progressed that section of the club has thrived under the stewardship of Gerry Lawlor.

As with all good things, they sometime have to come to an end or at least a deceleration. With a raft of retirements from the senior side in the mid-2000s and coupled with Rohan’s departure, it would be fair to say that the Women’s team struggled for a few seasons.

The generation of internationals and experienced players began to dwindle and the younger crop of ladies were finding it tough going at the top tier, not for lack of effort though.

To substitute youth and exuberance with experience and guile takes time. One of our internationals, Amanda Greensmith, was still in the fold, but even with a talent like hers, it was tough going for the Women’s side.

The decision to voluntarily drop down a division in 2007 was made with the best interests of the team in mind, and it turned out to be a wise decision. The Shannon Women continue to toil away with equal measures of dedication and commitment compared to those women who started the whole thing way back.

New leaders emerged in the Women’s team, with the aforementioned Amanda Greensmith continuing to be a role model in so many ways.

Then you have the current captain Katie McCloskey who not only leads on the pitch, but is very much the leader off it. Her shear dedication, not only to the women’s cause, but to the entire club is equalled by few.

International selection may have subsided in the recent past, but the provincial honours trickle on, with Kathryn Buggy becoming the most recent, in a long line of Shannon interprovincial representatives.

In 2009 the side won the All-Ireland Plate which was of equal importance to this team as the All-Ireland Division 1 title was back in 2001.

The one defining theme that the Shannon Women’s team have had, throughout the early years, continuing to the present day is that of unadulterated camaraderie amongst themselves.

They continue to be something of a throwback to the old amateur era where the values and ethos of the game are at the core of their principles. Play hard and tough on the pitch, but have an absolute ball off it.

As it was in the Nineties, the Women’s team continue to be more than a rugby team. They are a team of friends who show unstinting loyalty to each other and the club with the social side of the team a major contributing factor to their enjoyment of the game.

Memories of those late night revelries in ‘the office’, with the ladies to the fore come flooding back when we reminisce about the Shannon Women’s team.

The likes of Eilish Cowhey, Michelle Crosse, Denise Tracey and their supporting cast launching into another karaoke classic from the table tops of which they were invariably perched upon as the evening wore on was a pretty standard Sunday night post-match.

Few would have thought that it would last six months, let alone 20 years when the idea was first mooted. But thankfully we continue to have a thriving Women’s side, with underage teams who participate with equal aplomb to any other Shannon player.

For all that, we have that special group of women to thank.

Memories and stories will flow when the original team gather for a reunion in the office bar this Saturday (December 1), but it will be much more than a reunion 20 years later, it will be a celebration of the entire 20 years of the Shannon Women’s team.

Everyone from past and current  players to supporters, committee members and general hangers on of the women’s side are invited to come along and reminisce with the original divas of Shannon.

With any luck, they will have have a €;2 draw for 10 pints of beer where yours truly claims the prize. Now that would certainly help me remember more…or perhaps not.

Ladies of Shannon, we salute and congratulate ye for all that ye have achieved in a wonderful 20 years.