Virginia RFC have been at the forefront of Women’s Junior Rugby for the last few years and we took advantage of our visit to their 40th Anniversary Celebrations to find out how their Women’s Junior section has become so strong.

The club fields three junior sides, at U18, U15 and U12 levels, and they are entering a Senior Women’s side in the Ulster League this season. It’s a truly remarkable achievement, and commitment, for a club that has grown it’s Women’s programme from three junior players back 2010.

Sara Whitley, starred for Ulster U18 Women in their Grand Slam season last year but has now moved into the Virginia Women’s senior side. She told us how she got started:

Sara Whitley, Virgina RFC“I started playing rugby in the minis section, in the U10’s I think it was, but when we got to the U12’s we weren’t allowed to play with the lads anymore so we stared an U15’s side. There were three girls at that first training session but now we have around 50 or 60 girls playing junior rugby at Virgina at the minute. That’s great to see now and the girls are really enjoying it. 

The girls come from football, camogie, basketball, every sport that’s around really. Everyone says the atmosphere with rugby is completely different from any other sport. There is nobody shouting out at you from the sidelines and stuff like that compared to other sports. It’s more of a family atmosphere around the game and the way other events are organised around the clubhouse.”

We got a bit more detail on the senior set up from player Megan Higgins when we asked her how the team is progressing.

“We’ve got great numbers considering that the team only started a couple of weeks ago. There are women coming from everywhere, of all ages, and there is a good bit of craic as well. There’s 22 – 23 regulars with more to come. 

It’ll be good to get to play against different clubs that we haven’t played before in the juniors. We’ve no idea what anyone will be like to be honest, but we’re looking forward to it and it’ll bring us on as well.”

We then had a prolonged discussion with the players and the coaches on the U18’s juniors game. Virginia have been Ulster Champions for the last two years and faced with a largely 10 a side game in Ulster this season they have been proactive and have successfully applied through the Ulster and Leinster Branches to enter a team in both Ulster and Leinster U18 Leagues.

It’s a huge commitment by the club but it’s one that U18 Coach Pat Mullen thinks is well worth making as it will not only give Virginia’s players more game time but, through this, will also strengthen the pool of players that Ulster U18’s draw from.

After recently becoming involved, as an an assistant coach, with the U18 girls at my local club, Junior Rugby is a topic close to my heart, so we spent considerable time discussing player recruitment from competing sports with the Virginia coaches happy to share their experiences. Mullen emphasising that the tradition of respect for the officials is a key selling point for the sport.

“We were up in Armagh last Sunday and a parent of one of our girls who was playing for the U15’s for the first time came up to me after the game. Now the parent would have been heavily involved with GAA but after the game she had to tell me how impressed she she was with the atmosphere at the match, the discipline and the respect for the referee. “

Of course, the mutual respect and discipline are big selling points for the parents but, as the chat continued, it became obvious that it’s getting the junior players themselves to sell the game to their friends, by word of mouth and by social media, that really gets the numbers in. To get the juniors to sell it they have to be enjoying themselves and enjoyment is high on the coaching ticket here at Virginia, both at training and at their many social events. Add respect and commitment from the club, together with a community atmosphere and the players not only come along but they stay.

It sounds easy, but it needs complete buy in from the whole club and it’s obvious that Virginia RFC have done just that. Every Women’s Club that I visit appears to have one or two real evangelists for the women’s game but here at Virginia it’s every player, coach and club member.

Virginia U18’s players Sorcha Higgins, Ava Fannin, Emma Lochaden and Rebecca Snell.

Getting back to the U18 girls, it was difficult getting anything out of them but, they did sum it up perfectly:

The club is very good, it’s everyone together, there is no one left sitting out. Everyone is involved. We support our boys teams and they support us, we all get on very well. 

We’ll have some more Virginal RFC related articles in the coming days!

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