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Competitive grassroots leagues are the key to professional success | Fiona Hayes

The IRFU needs to ensure they promote the AIL and grassroots rugby now that they will be awarding 40 professional contracts, according to Fiona Hayes.

The IRFU needs to ensure they promote the All Ireland League and grassroots rugby now that they will be awarding 43 professional contracts, according to Grand Slam winner Fiona Hayes.

At the beginning of August, the Irish Rugby Football Union confirmed that it will be providing a total of 43 centralised, paid contracts to elite women’s players next season.

These are the first professional contracts that will be offered XVs players in the history of women's rugby in Ireland. This comes in the same summer that the Irish squad head to Japan for their first ever Summer Tour.

While there is a lot of positive news surrounding the national women's side, former Irish front rower Hayes feels that now is the time to get the development of women's rugby right.

"This is a crucial step," Hayes said. "The thing about it is it has to be done correctly."

Grassroots rugby is the future

Speaking on Off The Ball, Hayes revealed what she thinks will be the correct pathway that the IRFU needs to develop to succeed in promoting a competitive and professional national side.

"I'm a bit biased on that, I suppose," Hayes joked. "I love the AIL, that's how we developed when I was playing rugby. You were spotted in the AIL.

"I probably hasn't been that way in a few years, obviously players are spotted in a Munster [provincial] level. You have to really look at, instead of moving everyone to Dublin, look at moving players to different clubs to make the league competitive."

The provincial and All Ireland leagues are not as competitive as Hayes would like. She hopes that the new focus on the women's side will be accompanied by a grassroots approach that will see all clubs start to compete with all other clubs, brining out the best in every side.

"I'm down in Ballincollig, I'll put my hand up and say there's probably a top four in the league that are really competitive against each other," Hayes said.

"The rest probably don't compete at that high level and don't give those teams good games. If we can get the league really competitive, it brings the best out of players.

"If they can do that in their league, then in their cup, and then from that being picked to go up to a Munster level, then you get to go up to Ireland.

"You have the correct coaches in place in all levels, from AIL, Munster and up to Ireland, that is probably the best path for Ireland to go on."

Chasing the English model

Ireland are currently playing catch-up with the rest of the Six Nations unions. England and France lead the way in terms of their professionalism, however it is the Red Roses that very country wants to be like.

Hayes hopes the IRFU will use the English model as an example as they build women's rugby in Ireland.

"England are the team everyone aspires to be," Hayes said. "How they have built their league up and how the players play a their league at home and then into the England camp seamlessly.

"I think the IRFU are going to have to look at how we as a country are going to be able to do that. Will the players have to move up centrally to Dublin? If that happens... it's going to be very hard for them to have a path.

"It has to be correct, because, for such a small country, we can see the rest of the world is starting to pull them apart. We saw that by non-qualification for the World Cup."

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