Cork author piecing the story of women’s rugby together

A Cork woman has penned a new book about the history of women’s rugby. EMMA CONNOLLY talks to Midleton native Alison Donnelly about women’s role in the sport
Cork author piecing the story of women’s rugby together

Alison Donnelly with her new book

A MIDLETON woman has written a book to tell the story of women’s rugby pioneers who, she said, thankfully refused to ever take no for an answer.

Ali Donnelly, recognised as one of the true driving forces of women’s rugby herself, is the author of just-published Scrum Queens – The story of Women’s Rugby.

Ali admits she only started playing the sport herself purely by chance when she moved with her family to Midleton at the age of 15.

It was a pivotal move for the future of the sport.

Going on to play with Highfield and UCC, she admits to being constantly ‘maddened’ by the endless comparisons to the men’s game, at not being taken seriously, and in a lot of cases, being laughed at.

“My eyes began to open to wider gender inequalities in sport, that we were so often treated as a novelty and not, as I had expected, as something to get behind and support,” she writes.

But she wasn’t going to let it continue on her watch, and she’s since been a leading advocate and campaigner to turn things around both in Ireland and the UK, where she’s lived since 2007.

Alison Donnelly, third from left, with Theresa May - Alison worked at Downing Street under the former PM, as her deputy official spokesperson, where she also ran the press office.
Alison Donnelly, third from left, with Theresa May - Alison worked at Downing Street under the former PM, as her deputy official spokesperson, where she also ran the press office.

Stephen Jones, rugby columnist with The Sunday Times, wrote the foreword in the book and describes Ali as “one of the true driving forces of the growth of the sport, equally as important as the great players.

“She has been inexhaustible, needle-sharp; she has had the courage to speak out against those who felt that they had louder voices. And in doing so, she has proved her relevancy and campaigning brilliance,” he said.

As well as her campaigning work, Ali’s had a hugely successful career across communications and politics, starting out with The Echo.

After moving to London, she worked for the BBC as a press officer, she was Head of Communications for three years for the Wasps men’s Premiership team, and worked at Downing Street under Theresa May as her deputy official spokesperson, where she also ran the press office.

She now works with Sport England as the Director of Communications, Digital and Marketing.

There’s more!

In 2009, Ali set up a women’s rugby website called Scrumqueens.com to continue to help promote the game.

“The intention was just to do it for a year or so ahead of the 2010 World Cup which was coming to London.

“It’s still going and still a one stop shop for news and insight about the international women’s game.

“It’s great fun to run as a volunteer with a small number of other passionate writers and over time I’ve come to understand that the history of the women’s game has been largely untold and that there are some incredible people whose stories have never been told,” she said.

That was her main motivation to write the book.

Prime Minister Theresa May travelled to South Africa during her tour of Africa. Alison is pictured here with the former PM.
Prime Minister Theresa May travelled to South Africa during her tour of Africa. Alison is pictured here with the former PM.

“I signed a contract to write it many years back, but struggled for some time to really get my head around a structure, or where to even start.

“I parked it for a while, but when the pandemic hit and I had a lot more time at home, I started to write more diligently and was able to use Zoom to talk to more people around the world about their stories,” she said.

One challenge, she found, was that much of women’s rugby history has not been written down or, worse, has been lost.

“Women’s rugby has a history that goes back to the 1800s and thankfully some dedicated research has been done by academics in recent years which has helped put the story of the earliest years together bit by bit.

Alison Donnelly with Jonny Wilkinson, when she won an award from the Rugby Writers Association.
Alison Donnelly with Jonny Wilkinson, when she won an award from the Rugby Writers Association.

“But it has been a huge challenge to piece the story together over a period of 130 years,” she admits.

Ali lives in West London with her wife, and they’re parents to two girls, a one and a five-year-old, and she is conscious of being a role model to them.

But she feels there’s still a worrying gender gap in sport in terms of participation.

“I can’t speak to the situation in Ireland now, but at Sport England, where I work, we explore deep insight and research to try and address this here. There are a variety of reasons why we see drop off or a gap between boys and girls. This includes poor choice in school – where rigid offerings are often focused on traditional team sports – lack of confidence in their ability and a general lack of enjoyment.

“But there are all sorts of brilliant interventions though to tackle this, and far more awareness now about what holds girls back.”

Ali’s also thankful that, even though there is still some way to go, women’s rugby is now unrecognisable from when she started out.

“I know that those who have worked so hard to push it forward have done it through making enormous sacrifices, often at significant personal cost and without any real recognition,” she said.

Stephen Jones describes the book as one that “seals the first revolution in women’s rugby and sets it up for a radical, wonderful and even-moneyed future”.

A modest Ali point to the sport’s amazing ambassadors: “I’m just determined to continue to play whatever role I can in making sure they commended for what they have done.”

Scrum Queens – The Story of Women’s Rugby is available from all usual outlets.

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