Katie Fitzhenry admits she did not envisage moving into coaching before making the decision to hang up her playing boots in May 2021.
Fitzhenry represented Ireland with distinction in both sevens and 15s between 2014-20, appearing in 79 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series matches and winning 14 test caps, the first of which came during the Women’s Six Nations winning campaign in 2015.
It was during her time in Ireland’s high-performance programme that she first noted the need for more female coaches to support the women’s game.
On stepping down from the squad as a player last May, Fitzhenry says she “pestered” someone at the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) until they began working with her to put her observations into practice.
She is now employed by the union as a Women’s Performance Pathway Coach.
“If I'm being completely honest with you, I've probably never seen myself as a coach,” Fitzhenry told World Rugby.
“I suppose that goes back to the [fact] it's a male-dominated field and for me, when I was in the setup, there were certain things I could see or that I felt were necessary to make us an even better team.
“So, I worked, and I suppose pestered someone until they listened to me, and we worked together to try to build this pathway.
“It just evolved really quickly and when I retired last year, I was given this coaching opportunity. I took it with both hands and I'm loving it.
“I'm glad I've done it. I suppose it wasn't initially where I probably saw myself, but I'm absolutely delighted to be taking the opportunity.”
Finding a connection
Fitzhenry’s move into coaching has coincided with her participation in the WISH Women in High Performance Pathway programme.
The programme brings together female coaches from seven different Olympic sports and Fitzhenry says it has been “good to be involved with like-minded people”.
The Irishwoman attended the programme’s residential week at the University of Hertfordshire in England last month, which gave the participants the opportunity to meet and share ideas in person.
“It brought [the programme] to a different level,” Fitzhenry said of the residential week.
“We talk about being online all the time and yes, obviously it's a great tool, but you can't really beat meeting people in person.
“I think it just brings a connection, I suppose, an openness to conversations a little bit more, which is great.”
Those connections were strengthened during conversations on post-breakfast walks with fellow participants, and Fitzhenry now feels part of a supportive network of female coaches from around the world.
“There was a realisation that a lot of the female coaches are in pretty similar situations, or have been in similar situations,” she added.
“It was enlightening for me to realise that you're not alone and that everyone goes through the same thing.
“Probably whether you're male or female, but it was just nice to be within a group of females who either had or were going through the same things you were.
“I think there's now a support group for each other. Whether we truly understand what each other are going through – which is obviously with different sports and all that kind of stuff – [it’s nice] having that support network around you and having that chance to open up or ask questions or just vent if that's what's needed to do.”
Fitzhenry admits that she is still working on her coaching philosophy and says that she does not yet feel ready to work as a head coach of a national team.
“That's okay,” she said. “Right now, I'm happy and content to work and continue to work with pathways and making sure that they're intact for the future.
“[To focus on] how I can best develop them to make sure that Irish rugby is in a good place in 5-10 years' time or even further on in time.”
The former Ireland centre does possess the ambition to work at the highest level one day, though.
“To be honest, I probably focused on that because I always wanted to make sure that I enjoyed that and I suppose, get results from that,” she added. “So, I haven't quite focused on the future yet.
“But ultimately, if I'm still in the same position I am in a year or even two years then yes, I would like to be involved in a senior team.
“Whether that be as head coach or assistant coach or skills coach, I'm not quite sure yet.”