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From leaving Cameroon as a child to tag rugby to the national team - Meet the student nurse turned Ireland prop

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Linda Djougang ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Scotland. Photo: Sportsfile

Linda Djougang ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Scotland. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Linda Djougang ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Scotland. Photo: Sportsfile

Linda Djougang's phone pinged with a message she wasn't expecting last Sunday evening. She had already surprised herself earlier in the day by scoring her first Six Nations try for Ireland in their game with Wales in Donnybrook.

Wearing a dark grey scrum cap, it looked like Djougang was going to be brought down by a few Welsh players before the try-line with over a minute gone in the second half.

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Linda Djougang's mum Julienne Koubeu in Cameroon

Linda Djougang's mum Julienne Koubeu in Cameroon

But she wasn't stopped. She got there. So did Storm Ciara. The ferocity of the wind and rain at one stage in the second half visibly shook the players and they had to huddle together for warmth. Soon after the full-time whistle blew for an impressive 31-12 win for Ireland, Djougang was ushered away for a drug-test.

A hot shower was put on hold. Eventually, she got back to her team-mates. Later that evening, came a surprise message from her mum Julienne Koubeu in Cameroon. It capped a day she'll never forget.

"She sent me a text saying: 'Congratulations, I'm so proud of you'," Djougang says. "I wasn't expecting that and it summed up my day really. I cried a bit, I was in tears knowing that she knew that I did something amazing. It really meant a lot knowing that she understood what it means to me 'cos sometimes it's hard not having someone so close next to you and sharing the journey together".

Djougang hasn't seen her mother in almost 15 years. Since August 25, 2005, to be exact. That was the day a nine-year-old Djougang left her home in La Cite Des Palmiers, Douala (which is the largest city in Cameroon) and flew to Dublin to live with her father.

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Linda Djougang celebrating her try against Wales last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Linda Djougang celebrating her try against Wales last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Djougang had been living with her mum, her grandparents and cousins. Ask what it was like growing up in La Cite Des Palmiers and Djougang remembers coconuts, mangoes falling off trees, football and family.

"It was just a big family," Djougang says, with a catching laugh. "We don't have such a thing as a nursing home or anything like that so as a young child you grow up just caring and looking after your parents really and having duties to do at home."

Djougang says the reason she moved to Ireland to live with her father and step-mother in Rush, Co Dublin was for better opportunities.

It was a huge cultural change including the language, she had no English as French was her first language. She says she never asked her parents why.

"My parents kind of decided themselves that it would probably be a bit better for me. I haven't had the conversation with them, really, why the reason. You just did it at the time, without question," Djougang says, remembering how difficult it was leaving her mum behind in La Cite Des Palmiers. "I think it has to be the hardest thing as a child you have to do because you're so close growing up. At the same time, I didn't really know what was happening. In my head, it was just a holiday."

Seven years ago Djougang asked herself 'what is rugby?' Not in an existential, philosophical manner. But more essentially, what is rugby?

Djougang had been living in Dublin for eight years by this stage and had been accepted into the Trinity Access Programmes which supports people "from areas with low progression rates to higher education".

Djougang was in an internship with a finance company when an email popped into her inbox about tag rugby.

"I remember just being really nervous and not really knowing how to socialise - people wearing suits and being very formal so I really wanted to join a social team, just to get to know the people. I opened this email and it was social tag rugby and I remember turning to my manager and be like, 'do you think I should do this?' And she was 'yeah you should definitely do that'. I remember being like, 'what is rugby?'. So I had to go google it."

So here's the unique arc: Djougang was 17 when she googled 'what is rugby', at 23 she's playing international rugby for Ireland. Or to fill that out - from social tag rugby, to joining Wanderers FC, to playing with Old Belvedere in the All Ireland League, to Leinster rugby to the Ireland Six Nations squad last year.

On the advice of Ireland head coach Adam Griggs, she switched from blindside flanker to prop. She then moved from loosehead to tighthead prop. Are you keeping up? The Wales game last Sunday was her second Six Nations start for Ireland. Tries are a bonus, for props it's about the war of the scrum.

"With Scotland (in the first Six Nations game), the scrummaging didn't go as well as we planned. So in my head as a tighthead, you're leading that scrum. So, I was in a bit of pressure to really better myself for the Wales game. Everything that didn't go well in Scotland it had to go well against Wales. The lineout calls and the play calls." It did.

At 7.0am the next morning, Djougang was in Tallaght Hospital to start her job as a student nurse and she didn't leave until 8.40pm that night.

She's in the final year of her internship in general nursing. Next week she will work Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and the Ireland squad will fly to England on Friday morning for their Six Nations game against the defending Grand Slam champions on Sunday.

The England players are on professional, full-time contracts. Put this beside the job Djougang has ahead of her in the hospital wards next week and it again highlights the close to impossible task facing Ireland's Women.

Djougang tries to separate her roles. When she's a nurse, that's who she is, even if she's getting recognised a bit more as the Ireland rugby player by patients. Nursing as a career wasn't in her family, but it was everywhere in her family.

"I grew up in a large family back home in Cameroon where you live with your grandma and your grandpa so you're constantly caring. I wanted to do something that I would be able to give back to so many people, because growing up, so many people looked after me," Djougang says. "For someone to call me feeling ill and to go home feeling so much better, I love that. Just make someone better, yeah."

She's also helping this Ireland Women's team improve with two wins from two in this Six Nations and World Cup qualification coming up later this year. Her dad has never seen her play rugby, her aunt Carine Ndjouzing - who is her step-sister but Djougang prefers to call her her aunt because of everything she's done for her - was there to witness her first Ireland cap against England last year.

Someday, she hopes to go back to Cameroon and see her mum again.

"It's something that I'm planning to, hopefully, after even the World Cup or after I get my degree. It's something that's in my head, to go back home, or back to where I'm from, back to my roots. Just discover myself again.

"Every single day I get goosebumps thinking of my journey. Like, it hasn't been easy. I'm just grateful to the people that has been there for me. I know as a rugby player people look at you and think that you're invincible. But at the same time, we're all humans and we all go through our own problems. But I've an army behind me that's pushing me. I can't say that I've done it myself."

In the build-up to the Wales game last weekend, Ireland forwards coach Steve McGinnis told the forwards to run like they're going to score. "So I was like as long as they don't put me down I'm just going to keep going," Djougang laughs about her precious try.

She did. She kept going. It's like she knows no other way.

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