CORK’S Alison Donnelly could very well become the next Susan Whelan.
The Dublin woman, now the CEO of Premier League Champions Leicester City, left Howth in her twenties and made her way in the world, and Donnelly’s path seems to be on a similar trajectory.
The 33-year-old from Ballintotis in east Cork is presently the Head of Strategic Communications in the British Treasury’s press office, working alongside George Osbourne in persuading the people of Britain to stay in the European Union. Her time studying for a BSc in Government and Public Policy in UCC stood her well, and in 2014 she became senior press officer for the British Cabinet Office, before
moving to the Treasury last year.
But, truth be told, it was as much her studies as her time wearing the Skull and Crossbones on the playing field that made Donnelly one of the most inspiring women to come out of Cork flying the sporting flag.
From a hugely supportive family – with five brothers and one sister – Donnelly took up rugby with Midleton RFC at a time when there were less than five clubs in Cork accommodating female players. She played and was good, and eventually joined Highfield RFC lining out with Irish stars Heather O’Brien and Laura Guest, but her spell at UCC really ignited her passion for the game.
While in college she became PRO for the Irish Women’s Rugby Football Union, before it came under the umbrella of the IRFU, but it was a tough ask. Back then, Six Nations titles weren’t even dreamed of.
“Nobody was interested at the time. I can remember doing a Six Nations launch in Limerick where one journalist turned up and half the team was there. So it was a case of begging people to cover the games. Then the IRFU took over and slowly things got better,” says Donnelly, who also played and coached with Teddington RFC since moving to London in 2009.
Prior to that move, Donnelly worked with the Evening Echo as a news reporter for three years. Her influence on the sports desk in ‘Echo Towers’ however was also noted, as she instigated and helped establish the prestigious monthly Evening Echo Ladies Sports Star Awards.
To say she lives, eats and breathes sport is a big statement, but it’s an understatement when it comes to promoting women’s rugby.
On her move to London, she founded the international women’s rugby website Scrumqueens.com, which is now the leading independent women’s rugby website in the world. And, the hugely impressive thing is that it’s all completely run by a small group of volunteers who Donnelly brought together. Her time spent working with BBC, BT Sport and Sky Sports along the way helped massively in shaping the direction of the website.
Last year it was nominated for the Media Organisation of the Year at the #BeAGameChanger Awards run by the Women’s Sports Trust in Britain, while Donnelly herself also received a special award from the Rugby Union Writers’ Club in London for her services to women’s rugby through her website, presented to her by former England star Jonny Wilkinson.
“There was hardly any coverage at all before, so the website became really popular and took on a life of its own. Back then it would take the union two days to put something on their website after a game, it was hard getting any kind of information at all. But it’s easily accessible now, so the site has become more about interviews and features rather than news,” Donnelly told the Irish Times.
“There are real spikes of coverage now, particularly for Ireland around the World Cup and the Six Nations, but we still have a long way to go. That doesn’t surprise me, though, it’s the same for most women’s sport, the national team getting a profile when they do well, and then it drops off. It’s better than it was, but the unions could do so much more to promote them.”
Aged 27 she became the head of Wasps Rugby Club where again she learned the ropes and managed to work both full-time, run the website and take time out of her own annual leave to attend 15s and sevens competitions worldwide simply to promote the game any which way she could.
Rugby however began to dominate her life. A change was required and so now she’s taken a slight step back and enjoying her time in the British Cabinet, which as it transpires is hugely busy given the bid to keep Britain in the EU.
“I work as a civil servant alongside George Osborne’s team. It’s an interesting, crazy political environment, but it’s a job I love. I work on all of the issues that the Treasury is focused on – the economy, tax, pensions, financial services, and so on.
“We go abroad a lot with the Chancellor too, we were in China for 10 days before Christmas – four cities, four speeches, 20 to 30 interviews with both Chinese and British press, so a lot of it is just
facilitating that. Working with press queries, all that, trying to get journalists off your back,” she laughs.
Oh, and did we mention the book on the history of women’s rugby she’s writing alongside John Birch? Well, you get the picture.
The only way it up for Alison Donnelly.