In the weeks leading up to the biggest game in their history, Dublin University Football Club (DUFC) Women faced a challenge they had not anticipated. All eyes should have been firmly set on their Leinster League Division 3 final against MU Barnhall.
Leinster Rugby, however, had thrown a spanner in the works.
During the regular season, DUFC played their matches on Sundays at 1pm. Honor MacNamara, Trinity’s out-half, notes that “it’s a nice way to have it, because you know for sure that that’s what you’re going to be doing at 1pm on a Sunday”.
But DUFC’s final against Barnhall was set for Saturday, March 23rd – in Naas. On the same day, the finals of the three other Leinster League divisions would also be held in the Kildare venue.
It just so happened that DUFC Men had a crucial match against Cork Constitution fixed for that same day in College Park. The men’s team were on the brink of securing a place in the play-offs of the All-Ireland League (AIL) Division 1A and making history.
Working alongside Colm Hogan and Arthur Greene, Joe Horan was in his third season as a coach with the women’s set up last year. However, as first-team players with the AIL squad, they faced missing the women’s final because of the fixture clash.
They’re trying to develop women’s sports, but it’s hard when you’re putting it the same day as an AIL quarter-final
“We spoke to Leinster about that”, Horan says. “We even put in a formal appeal to the date, just tried to change it, because all three of us were due to play against Cork Con on the Saturday.”
Leinster were unyielding, however. “It does add an unnecessary factor that we could have avoided, or Leinster could have avoided”, MacNamara says.
“We did try to argue that point, in that you know, we don’t have an option but to go on without all our coaches, but obviously they just wanted it to run smoothly. I don’t think they cared all that much.”
Jane Leahy, a former captain of DUFC Women, was at the forefront of the appeals in the weeks before the final.
“They’re trying to develop women’s sports and get more people out to watch it, but it’s hard when you’re putting it the same day as an AIL quarter-final”, she says.
“I can’t commend the club enough. We had everyone backing us, we’d letters written to the branch on our behalf – we’d every support that we could. But it was just, it wasn’t happening.”
They could have had the final in Donnybrook or something like that … it’s not as if Naas is the biggest ground in Leinster or anything like that
In Horan’s book, the venue choice was also telling. “No offence to Naas or anything, but they could have had the final in Donnybrook or something like that … it’s not as if Naas is the biggest ground in Leinster or anything like that.”
With that, DUFC travelled to face Barnhall without their coaches. Trinity had beaten Barnhall 33-24 a number of weeks before the final, handing the Kildare side their first league defeat of the season.
Leahy and MacNamara agree that this victory had been their “best game of rugby to date”. It would act as the blueprint for the decider.
The opening exchanges did not go to plan. Trinity’s slowness to adapt hurt them, as Leahy recounts: “The first half of the game we weren’t really playing at all, we were going through the motions of what we planned to do, and nobody was really playing the game … no one was really playing rugby, and we were all trying to strategise.”
“We didn’t really react quick enough … they obviously played for us to be playing a kicking game. We didn’t react and, with Colm not being there, [it] was tough for us to adjust.”
Despite not being near their best, Trinity were only two behind going into the break. Rejuvenated and running at their opponents instead of kicking, Trinity found a breakthrough in the second period. Camped in the Barnhall 22, Leahy found herself with the ball in hand.
It didn’t come, unfortunately. I’d say another five minutes we could have had a different result
“I didn’t make it the first time. It went through three other phases I think … it got back to me again and I had two of the girls on my hip and we just went over.”
“It was touch and go, I was barely over the line but we knew we’d made it at that point”, Leahy says.
The try had given DUFC a fighting chance – all of a sudden, promotion was in sight. “Jane scored a try quite early on and that really gave us a boost”, MacNamara recalls. “I’d scored a penalty in the first half as well, so we were back into it, even though we still weren’t reaching out best, we were hanging in there.”
The clock bled out as Trinity searched desperately to clinch victory. With two points separating the sides, Leahy remembers trying to fashion an opening for MacNamara to line up a drop-goal.
“We’d done so much to keep them off the line for the whole game that we thought that we could do it. We thought: ‘One penalty, that’s all we need’, and Honor’s boot was brilliant. We were just trying to get into a position where we could kick it.”
“It didn’t come unfortunately. I’d say another five minutes we could have had a different result”, she adds. There’s a pang of regret in her voice.
Horan was warming up in College Park when the news came in. Refreshing his Twitter feed erratically, he saw the result pop up, with confirmation of the 12-10 defeat. “I was disappointed, but at least I had a game to focus”, he says.
“It was always going to be a tight game. We’re pretty evenly matched sides – different styles of play definitely … they obviously just got five per cent more out of themselves on the day that we did, but I’d say it could have gone either way.”
Back in Naas, emotions were running high. Leahy remembers the final whistle and the devastation that came with it.
I mean, personally, I’m always one for the team talk straight away or whatever – I ended up just walking away
“I mean, personally, I’m always one for the team talk straight away or whatever – I ended up just walking away, I couldn’t even face the girls”, she says.
“For me, it wasn’t so much we’d lost the game or whatever, but I felt that we’d kind of let the final-year girls down. That this was their big moment and their last memories that they’d have.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the players soon began to draw positives from the game, despite missing out on promotion. Reaching the final represented something more for women’s rugby in Trinity. Two short years before this season, DUFC were languishing in Division 4. Sometimes they struggled to field a team.
“We all remember the days we were playing 10-a-side rugby and we weren’t really taken seriously, so we were all delighted just to be there, to have fought to get there that day”, Leahy recalls.
Their success was a culmination of hard work off the field as well. Horan notes that Leahy, ex-captain Molly Boyne and others were instrumental in developing the women’s game in Trinity, and “giving a voice to the women’s team” within DUFC.
After the final we’d kind of accepted it, and then by the time that news came through, it was almost like winning another final
“They worked so hard and were at all these meetings with the likes of Tony Smeeth and John Boyd. Those guys would really have appreciated that it was worthwhile investing not just money, but time and resources into the women’s team.”
There was one final twist left in the saga. Months later, the day after the club’s annual awards night, the players got word that they were, in fact, to be promoted. Permutations in other leagues meant their second place finish was enough to see them go up.
“After the final we’d kind of accepted it, and then by the time that news came through, it was almost like winning another final”, MacNamara says.
“We were ecstatic. It was fantastic news, to have some sort of reward for all the hard work we’d put in in the league throughout the year, that it was kind of recognised.”