Thursday 24 January 2019

Lynne tries out new role

Irish rugby great, Lynne Cantwell, talks to Ken Phelan about her appointment to the board of Sport Ireland and reflects on a great career

Lynne in full flight in an Irish shirt. Photo by Sportsfile
Lynne in full flight in an Irish shirt. Photo by Sportsfile
Legends of the game, Niamh Briggs and Lynne Cantwell in the glory days for Irish Women’s Rugby

Known as the Brian O'Driscoll of women's rugby, Rolestown native Lynne Cantwell, through fierce determination and dogged perseverance catapulted the Irish Women's Rugby team onto the world stage during her illustrious career, changing the face of Irish rugby forever.

By the time of her retirement in 2014, Lynne (37), had an unrivalled 86 caps, two Six Nations titles to her name and had helped lead her team to a first World Cup semi-final in 2014. It was in this tournament that the team scored a historic win against New Zealand's Black Ferns, the first time ever for the Irish.

Now a practising physiotherapist and based in London, Lynne has taken on a new challenge, as a member on the board of Sport Ireland, a position she'll retain until 2023. With years of experience in women's rugby and a background in athletics, she believes she could bring a lot to the role.

Speaking to The Fingal Independent recently, Lynne explains her new role with Sports Ireland, and gives insight into her prolific career with the Irish Women's Rugby team: 'There was an advert on Sport Ireland's website during the summer about three posts that were coming available on the board, so I applied for that and went through the interview process.

'That position went to Olive Loughnane, the long-distance runner, but there were more initiatives that were going to be unfolding from September onwards, so after a couple of months they gave me a call and asked me to be involved.

'As a board member, I'll be following Sports Ireland's focus, promoting participation in sports, putting the right structures and foundations in place for that to happen, allocating funding, and at performance level supporting our top athletes to be competitive on the world stage.

'So it's quite a wide spectrum of responsibilities, but it's just about understanding how to spend and allocate funding, according to all the requirements for grass roots and high performance sports.'

Although Lynne rose through the ranks to become a top rugby player, she had originally trained in athletics with Fingallians in Swords.

It was only when she went to study in Limerick, where everyone was 'rugby mad', that she found herself drawn to the sport: 'I started off in athletics in Fingallians; my experience of that was that my dad brought me down to there when I was 10, and I loved it.

'I had a couple of the best coaches I've ever had in my life who basically just provided the best experience that anyone could have as a kid.

'That was when I was 10 years old, and before I knew it, I was 20 and a strong, fast, powerful athlete, and my body could do whatever it wanted.

'I started playing rugby when I was nineteen or twenty.

'I had moved down to Limerick, and everyone was rugby mad. A few of the girls in my class played, and coming from athletics, I was fast. Rugby at the time was very young and I got onto the Irish team really quickly and took it from there.

'So I was only twenty or twenty one when I got onto the team'.

Having achieved such success and seen the popularity of women's rugby grow, does Lynne think enough is being doing now to promote the sport now?

She said: 'I definitely think it's getting better. There are lots of initiatives from the likes of Sports Ireland and others, and I think there are lots of changes being made to provide better opportunities for women to get involved.

'Decision making positions are vital, because that means that changes can be made at structural level first.

'Ultimately, what we'd like to see is that jobs are performance-based, that it's the best person for the jobs for governance and coaching positions, but obviously there needs to be a big focus on changing what are norms are.'

During her time with the Irish Women's Rugby team, where did Lynne find her motivation?

Lynne said: 'Everybody's motivated differently, but my motivation was just in being the best that I could be, so it just meant that anything that any of the obstacles that got in the way weren't really an issue.

'You just to try to enjoy it, and make friends with the people around you.

'That keeps you in the sport, and the life skills that it teaches you are phenomenal. So it's about continuing to improve and being the best you can be, but enjoying it at the same time.'

Despite being lucky not to have sustained any serious injuries during her career, Lynne was knocked out in the World Cup in 2014 during the semi-final against England.

This was perhaps a sign from the gods, as this game had been planned to be her last. At that stage, she felt, she had 'achieved so much' and wanted to give up-and-comers a chance to rise through the ranks.

After playing for 13 years and seen so many wins, Lynne says that she felt she would not be physically able to stay on for a four-year cycle, and decided to move on and give other people 'the chance to put their mark on the position', so that they could themselves compete in the World Cup.

She says, however, that she is still closely involved in the sport: 'I'm involved in a coaching capacity with a club here in London, then as a kind of analyst when the Six Nations are on, I work with RTE on a panel discussion type thing, and in the background campaigning for the game to grow.'

'It's at a really exciting time for women in sports and women in rugby because it's literally only at the start.

'We want Ireland to be competitive in where they position themselves so that they can compete with all the other countries, because other countries have taken big strides forward.

'So you're always campaigning to make sure that Ireland is competing with the best.'

When asked how she feels about being a role model for young girls getting involved in the sport, Lynne says it's something she takes 'very seriously'.

She realises, she says, the 'phenomenal' benefits of being involved with the sport, both on a fitness level, and as working as part of a team.

The Irish rugby legend says: 'It's great to see the great raw talent coming through but it's sad to think that people are missing out on that experience, because they don't play sport.

'If what we do gives people the belief to say 'I can do that', then that's brilliant.'

She says: 'I've experienced the value of grass roots sports done well, and so I can see the value of teaching kids early, as well as all the other brilliant things sport teaches you at an early age.

'They're the kind of 'ABCs' that keep you in sport forever.'

Having reached the pinnacle of her career, and helped give women's rugby a profile it hadn't previously enjoyed, looking back, does Lynne miss the limelight, the pain and the victory?

'I definitely miss rugby, just the intensity that you experience when you play international sport.

'When you leave that behind you, you never get it back. You're playing against people at the top of their game, and that's something really special.

'You miss the camaraderie and the bond you had with the girls, because you were all striving towards achieving something really really great.

'But equally, I'm really grateful for the experience I had.

'With the people who were in the game for a long time, we got the game to where it's at now, but everyone has to move on at some stage.

'I'm just happy that I got the opportunity I did.'

Minister Shane Ross appointed Lynne to the Board of Sport Ireland, last week. Minister Ross saying she has 'skills and expertise which will be of enormous value to the work of Sport Ireland'.

No doubt the Rolestown woman will prove him right on that.

Fingal Independent