Another Accolade For Parsons

University College Dublin student Béibhinn Parsons has been awarded the Guinness Irish Rugby Writers’ Women’s Player of the Year for the second year running. The Connacht player has impressed for both club and country since emerging onto the senior rugby scene as a teenager and is earning plaudits around the world as one of the hottest prospects in the game, with many believing the sky’s the limit for the Galway native.

Parsons achievements are not exclusive to the sporting world as the 20-year-old is a UCD Ad Astra scholar, studying Biomedical, Health, and Life Sciences at Belfield. The promising winger is part of a golden era for Irish sportswomen who are making their mark on the world stage which includes the likes of Aintree Grand National winner Rachael Blackmore, world champion boxer Katie Taylor, and Solheim Cup hero Leona Maguire.

The Guinness Irish Rugby Writers’ Men’s Player of the Year was won by UCD alumni as Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw took home the prize after a brilliant season for the national team, Leinster, and the British & Irish Lions as they toured South Africa, meaning both awards ended in the hands of past and present students from the west of Ireland.

From Ballinasloe to International Acclaim

Parsons’ meteoric rise in the game dates back to November 2018, when she wrote herself into the history books becoming the youngest ever player to earn a senior international cap for Ireland at the age of 16 as the winger came off the bench against the USA to make her debut. The debutant, who hails from the remote town of Ballinasloe, made an instant impression against the Americans and has taken any challenge she has faced thereafter in her stride. Parsons’ signs of promise were rewarded by the IRFU when she was named in the 2019 Six Nations squad, scoring her first test try in the match against Wales.

The Connacht prodigy comes from a strong GAA background, which is to be expected in the part of the country in which she grew up, which appears to have benefitted her game in the same way in which former international Tommy Bowe credits his Gaelic football playing days as contributing to his success on the rugby pitch. Speed, agility, and game intelligence are all some of Parsons’ best attributes which are all transferable between the two sports. 

The then 18-year-old carried her form into the 2020 Six Nations, scoring tries in wins over Scotland and Wales. Fast forward a year, and the Irish team’s backs were against the wall as they were scrambling to keep their World Cup 2022 qualifying hopes alive after a difficult start to the campaign. Up stepped the team’s star performer, as the blistering winger put in a heroic performance to see off an Italian side playing with home advantage. 

The State of Women’s Rugby

 It is safe to say that women’s rugby is not in a good place in this country, with the emergence of Parsons being a rare positive in recent years. Since Ireland’s Grand Slam win in 2014, the team have been struggling to find consistent performances to really challenge at the top of rugby. However, this poor form reached a new low when the side failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in New Zealand from a group of Scotland, Italy and Spain. A surprise loss to Spain would in normal circumstances be seen as the nadir for Irish women’s rugby, but after the qualification campaign, 62 players felt compelled to write to the government ministers responsible for sport, Catherine Murphy and Jack Chambers, to air their frustrations with the systemic problems in the game, highlighting the IRFU’s inaction to combat the slip in standards in women’s rugby. 

An issue which was raised by the players was the instance when Connacht players had to change beside rubbish bins with rodents. This appears to be indicative of the organisation’s attitude towards the women’s game. This story is akin to the ‘Tracksuit-gate’ controversy in Irish football in 2017 which shone a light on the FAI’s mistreatment of the women’s team. 

The IRFU came under significant pressure in the wake of the players’ letter to the government, yet similar to Boris Johnson’s their first response was to effectively wash their hands with it and leave it up to a review. I don’t believe Sue Gray is in charge of this one though! Although the initial position of rugby’s governing body was to come out fighting, the new CEO Kevin Potts has made assurances that addressing the players’ concerns will be a priority of his time in charge of the IRFU. Let’s hope that there are brighter days around the corner for the women’s national team, led by our very own Béibhinn Parsons, of course!

Callum Buchan – Sports Editor