Connacht Rugby made history this week when it became the first in Irish Rugby to elect a female president to lead the branch.
Ann Heneghan, well known in rugby circles for the past 30 years, was elected Connacht Rugby president at this week’s viritual AGM, breaking into what has been traditionally an all-male bastion.
It is a significant move by Connacht Rugby which has recognised the 53-year-old Partry native’s contribution to the game in the west and her leadership skills.
A solicitor in Galway, Ann Heneghan has been involved in the sport since cutting her teeth in her dad Seán’s club, Ballinrobe RFC, where three of her brothers played. Initially providing weekly rugby reports to the Connaught Telegraph, Heneghan became the first female elected as a Connacht branch delegate. Since then she has held many administrative roles, secretary to the Connacht Junior squad, a member and subsequent chairman of the disciplinary committee, the first chairperson of the Connacht Rugby Supporters’ Club, and a judicial officer with World Rugby.
Connacht CEO Willie Ruane says not only has Ann Heneghan been hugely committed to Connacht for many years, but she is capable both professionally and in her contribution to the game.
“She is a highly capable person and we are lucky to have her,” he says. “ The fact that she is the first female president of a branch in Irish Rugby is very significant in its own right, because we want to encourage more people to get involved. So to have someone as committed and capable as Ann is a great example of that.”
Ruane says Connacht has been at the forefront in revising its governance structures thanks to the application of the clubs and people involved.
“We have people here who are progressive, and that is a real positive. We are delighted for Ann who is so capable and is deserving of this role.”
Heneghan says it is a great honour to have broken one of Irish Rugby’s glass ceilings, but it has required perseverance.
“It is not easy to break into rugby. Thirty years ago there would have been a bias in terms of what women know about rugby. There were very few women’s rugby teams - women were mainly involved in the kitchen making soup and sandwiches, and washing dishes. It is a case of persevering. People realise you know what you are talking about in rugby terms, but you do have to earn respect.
“It is important for girls and women getting involved, or those who may be reticent because they see it as a male orientated sport, to see it can be done.
“Positive discrimination is all very well, but I think you have to earn a role, and I would like to think I have earned mine.”
“I don’t want to be a figurehead, the token female who became head of Connacht Rugby. I want to take a more active role and hopefully encourage more women to be involved.
“Over the last three years I have got to know the presidents of the other provinces, and Leinster followed Connacht’s example and have a woman who is the senior vice president this year. Hopefully the other provinces will also follow suit, again not tokenism, but people who are actually involved so more women can see a way forward.”
Importantly Heneghan is “a rugby fan”, in addition to being a self-employed solicitor with negotiating and public speaking skills. It has made her a natural fit for this role, but she says, this season brings different challenges, not least getting players and fans back to the Sportsground.
“Just having rugby back is a huge positive, but it would be great to be watching live games again. We are lucky here in Connacht because it is a real family in terms of its supporters. It’s a smaller province, people have more access to coaches, players and management, everyone is more involved in Connacht. So to continue that, and especially now everything is remote, keeping fans involved and supporting the team is important.”
Heneghan says there are also growing challenges for the domestic game, not least keeping former players involved and encouraging volunteers.
“The domestic game relies on volunteers, and often the same people are involved for many years. I know clubs struggle with that and is the real challenge for all clubs throughout the country.”
Meantime, she says, the most important hope is that rugby can continue to be played safely.
“Aside from a couple of trophies for Connacht, it is important we have a situation where fans can come back and watch lives games again in safety.”