Sunday 11 December 2016

Trailblazers plot path to another Kiwis scalp

Flanker Ciara Griffin is revelling in 'surreal' Ireland camp ahead of showdown at UCD

Aisling Crowe

Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30

Ireland's Ciara Griffin Photo: ©INPHO/James Crombie
Ireland's Ciara Griffin Photo: ©INPHO/James Crombie

Christmas decorations rich in red and gold festoon the lobby and corridors of the Talbot Hotel and the lights around the hotel courtyard emit an eerie, icy glow as Ireland's women's rugby team finished their first day of preparations for this afternoon's game against New Zealand.

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The atmosphere is serious but friendly, Christmas but an out-of-focus subject in their peripheral vision like the inverted Christmas trees dotted around the hotel that cause everyone to do a double-take. There is something of the magic of Christmas around Ireland's flanker against New Zealand this afternoon, however.

Ciara Griffin will pull on the number six jersey for Ireland in UCD shortly before 2pm, and her joy at being in that position, playing rugby for her country, radiates around her, like a child wrapped in the magic and wonder of Christmas.

The 22-year-old made her Ireland debut in the victory over Wales during the last Six Nations.

"Last season was my first Six Nations and it's nice to start your Irish career on a win," says the girl from Ballymac, Co Kerry. "I got great experience last year, got a nice bit of game-time under the belt. It was really enjoyable coming into the team. The girls are lovely, they make you feel very welcome and if you have questions they encourage you to ask them, they have no problems answering them. You never felt like a hindrance, you were automatically part of the squad and it's like being in a family. It's really enjoyable and I love my time with the Irish squad."

Playing international rugby has been her dream since she was six-years-old and first starting throwing a ball around in the front garden of her home with her older sister, encouraged by their father, who was involved in rugby locally. Today's game against New Zealand stirs memories of primary school PE classes learning the haka, and rushing in from the farmyard to watch the All Blacks perform the Maori ritual on the rare occasions they played Ireland in the late '90s and early 2000s. Her's is a genuine thrill, a real delight at being in this situation, in making a childhood dream a reality.

She says of her breakthrough season: "It is kind of surreal to be in this environment but it is a dream come true and I am going to grab it with both hands and work as hard as I can to stay here, but it is a very competitive squad. That puts pressure on you as a player to make sure you look after your fitness, your nutrition, that you keep on top of everything but I am really looking forward to Sunday. It is like a dream come true not only to put on the green jersey but to play against the All Blacks. It is one of the biggest things for a rugby player, to play against New Zealand."

Griffin is no wide-eye innocent marveling in her surroundings and the wonder of it all, though, not peeking behind the curtain to see the reality behind the magic of a dream. Rather she is focused, determined and revels in the tough battles, long hours and hard work necessary to become an international rugby player.

The celebratory atmosphere of the match in Soldier Field will soon pass into the annals of rugby history but, the women were first to get there, the first senior Irish international side to beat New Zealand, and not in any game but in a World Cup match. This is the first game between the two teams since that historic victory and, in a team bequeathed to the nation by Grand Slam heroines, nothing less than their absolute best will suffice.

"The girls were the first Irish team to beat New Zealand so we have to match that this weekend. I wouldn't say there is pressure on, if there is pressure it is good pressure. We demand high standards from each other right from the start of camp and they begin with blowing the cobwebs off, getting the pairings right and from now on we are at high intensity. We need to train at high intensity to play at high intensity, that's what (head coach) Tom (Tierney) wants. I prefer playing at high intensity myself so I look forward to these weekends," says the UL Bohs forward, a member of the only unbeaten team in the women's All-Ireland league this season.

This is the first year the IRFU has organized an autumn series of internationals for the women's team and, with next August's World Cup in Dublin in mind, they brought the three best teams in the world - New Zealand, Canada and reigning champions England - to Dublin. The autumn series is welcomed by Griffin and her team-mates, and the support given by the IRFU too. The efforts of everyone involved in Irish women's rugby are being recognised and a positive message is being spread, that the women get the same game opportunities that the men do. However, there is no comparable media coverage between women's rugby, and, for instance, football. Today's game will be streamed live on the IRFU's website but television coverage, similar to that of ladies' football on TG4, would allow the sport to grow. It is an avenue that Griffin suggests should be explored

Away from rugby, Griffin has to earn a living and she currently lectures part-time in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. After five years there studying first for a BEd in primary education and then a research masters investigating teaching methods encouraging children to play sport, she loves the transition into lecturing.

"I've done some subbing in schools and I've enjoyed it," the youngest of four girls, daughters of a primary school teacher, says. "I love lecturing, I love third level and could go on and do a PhD in time. I thought about turning my masters into a PhD but I want to employ the pedagogies I identified to see how they work."

Griffin lives on the family farm and works part-time with her father. Their business is mainly beef and the contract rearing of heifers but when she can, she joins her uncle on his nearby dairy farm to help with milking, a job she adores. Recently she has purchased some young bulls and her two Aberdeen Angus bulls are named Massey and Ferguson, reflecting her love of the iconic red tractors. The passion and enthusiasm that animates her features when she speaks about rugby is also there when talking about farming and lecturing.

Just 22-years-old, an Ireland international, a farmer, a lecturer and a teacher, she is the epitome of someone enjoying life and living it to the full, determined to be the best person she possibly can, in everything she does. Repeatedly ­during the conversation she mentions the ­importance of core values to the Ireland team, the most important of which are honesty and accountability.

The honesty of Ciara Griffin's passion and the accountability she demands of herself in life shine brighter and glow warmer than all the Christmas lights around her, a genuine joy that sparkles in the cold November air.

Ireland v New Zealand
UCD Bowl, 2.0

Ireland: N Briggs, M Coyne, N Fowley, S Naoupu, C McLaughlin, N Stapleton, L Muldoon, L Peat, C Moloney, A Egan, ML Reilly, O Fitzsimons, C Griffin, C Molloy, P Fitzpatrick. Replacements: L Lyons, F Hayes, F Reidy, N Fryday, C Cooney, M Healy, J Shiels, N Kavanagh.

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