UL Bohemians are in flying form, winning their opening six games in the Energia All-Ireland League Women’s Division and taking all of the 30 points available. It is exactly the start Fiona Hayes would have wanted when she returned to their helm.
Hayes took up the reigns again as UL Bohs head coach in the summer having previously been appointed to the role ahead of the truncated 2019/20 season.
The Limerick native had finished up as head coach of Ballincollig last December. She oversaw the Cork club’s first two campaigns in the Energia All-Ireland League.
She is delighted to be back now with UL Bohs, a club she holds very close to her heart after enjoying some great success there as a prop and captain during her playing days.
“It’s definitely my happy place,” she told IrishRugby.ie. “I spent my whole life playing with Bohs, it’s where I feel comfortable.
“I’ve always had a great connection with the club and the people in it. I was delighted to be asked to go back coaching there this season. We couldn’t have asked for a better start.
“It’s been great winning all our games so far but we’re very aware that we have a chasing pack behind us. Some of the girls came in straight off the back of a good Interpro Series, they carried that bit of form in with them at the start of the season.”
A Six Nations champion with Ireland in 2013 and 2015, Hayes was a key figure on the pitch during UL’s glory days, captaining them to back-to-back All-Ireland League crowns in 2017 and 2018.
It looked odds-on that she would coach the Red Robins to league glory in 2019/20, with a dozen straight victories on the board, but the Covid-19 pandemic dashed their hopes of silverware.
In recent seasons, it has been a battle of the south Dublin clubs with reigning champions Blackrock College and Railway Union, the two-time winners, leading from the front. Hayes is determined to get her team back on top.
“We set out our goals at the start of the season. I spoke to the group about how we’re almost considered underdogs now, we’re not considered to be the team of the past. I challenged them to lift it because I know the talent within this squad.
I really like how the squad have integrated with each other. We’ve had nearly 40 players up at training most evenings.
“We’ve varied the team selection a bit each week because we have to try and balance it out and manage each player’s minutes.
“We’ve been going great but we know 30 points from 30 doesn’t mean much, we just have to keep going. Our aim is to make that final come the end of the season.
“The main thing for me is that the girls enjoy their rugby, and I think if they’re enjoying playing, the results will come with that.”
Out-half Kate Flannery (pictured above) and winger Chisom Ugwueru have been two of the standout performers for Hayes’ charges so far this season. The young pair lead the All-Ireland League’s scoring charts, seven rounds in.
Tipperary native Flannery’s tally currently stands at 63 points and she is closely followed by Clare speedster Ugwueru, who is quickly turning into a try-scoring machine with 12 tries to her name already.
“I’ve coached at Munster Under-18 level, so I’ve had a lot of these girls up through the years at underage. The year Chisom and Kate were Munster U-18 we won the Interpros. I know them both really well, how they like to play.
“But I’ve been blown away with how they’ve developed. Beth Buttimer, at hooker, is another player I’ve been really impressed with.
“On Kate, she’s just outstanding. She is one of the raw talents that I saw at underage. She started playing for the U-18s quite early. She has unbelievable ball skills. It runs in the family with Jake at Ulster, and Alan in Shannon.
“She’s been lucky to be able to get some tips from Nicole Cronin too. She isn’t playing at the minute, but we’re hoping to have her back soon.
“She’s really helped with Kate’s kicking technique. One thing about Kate is that she is very coachable. She takes everything you tell her on board. She’s a pleasure to coach.”
Flannery and Ugwueru both attended the recent Women’s National Talent Squad camp at the IRFU High Performance Centre. The latter has been a lethal finisher for her club of late, running in four tries against Blackrock and bagging a hat-trick at Ballincollig.
“Chisom is another joy to coach. She’s another player that has the ability to win a game for you. She’s a game-changer.
“She’s one of those players that when she’s enjoying her rugby and in the right environment that’s when she plays her best rugby.”
Irish Rugby TV’s feature Energia All-Ireland League Live game on Saturday is the mouth-watering meeting of unbeaten UL Bohs and fourth-placed Railway Union at Annacotty (kick-off 5.30pm).
Coached by Stephen Costelloe this season, Railway are currently nine points behind the pacesetters but have a game in hand. Hayes expects a stern test in what she believes is a ‘must win’ contest for her side.
“This is definitely a huge game for us, especially because we’re at home. We want to be heading into Christmas in a good position, having Railway at home is a real tester for the season.
“If you can’t be beating those top teams at home, you’re probably counting yourself out for that spot in the top two and the final later in the season. We beat Blackrock earlier in the campaign, so this is another huge game for us on Saturday.”
She added: “It’s huge (to have it live on Irish Rugby TV). It’s growing the game. It’s great for some of the younger players within the club at 16s,17s, 18s to be able to see the senior teams on a screen.
“It’s great for both. For Irish Rugby to be able to put that focus on the AIL, at both Men’s and Women’s level, is great for the game.”