This convert from Gaelic football has all the life skills
When the interview wrapped up Lucy Mulhall offered a firm handshake and cheery farewell and headed out into the lunchtime bustle of Main Street, Gorey. I spent maybe another five minutes at the table trying to put some manners on notes while they were fresh. Having gathered up laptop and phone, I stopped at the cash register to pay the bill.
“Oh, the girl you were with has already paid that,” the waitress said. Ya wha?
It’s vaguely possible this has happened before, but if so it’s stuck in an era when chunky cassette recorders were tools of the trade and interviews didn’t involve official clearance from the IRFU. If you’ve seen this woman play rugby you’ll appreciate she is a special talent. If you’ve met her you’ll understand why.
Last weekend she scored three tries in Ireland’s demolition of England in the Toulouse Sevens. It was a performance that had everything, including her ability to facilitate those around her. Oddly enough, her leadership was perhaps best illustrated in the subsequent defeat by Australia. In possession, trailing 12-7 with time almost up in the first half, Mulhall grabbed the ball and knocked it into touch as she ran towards the sideline. It was a quick assessment of the relationship between risk and reward. No dithering; decision made; we’re done for now.
“That’s something I definitely wouldn’t have done a year ago,” she says. “I thought you always have to just chase the game and not show weakness by getting off the pitch, but in reality, through experience, I knew we were going in only five points down against the world leaders. That’s how we’re going to win a game against them. We’re not going to blow them off the field winning by 20 points. We’re going to hang in.
“We’re hanging in against them for eight or nine minutes now, and one day we’re going to build that up to 14 minutes. You have to score quick against Australia. If you don’t they’re going to turn the ball over, so we were in our own half and it was a better decision to go in on our own terms.”
This 28-year-old daughter of Tinahely is the embodiment of how to live life on your own terms. Mercifully, stitched into that make-up is a deep empathy for those around her. It’s not off the stones she licked it. Her grandmother Maura was a central part of her childhood and passed on a lifetime of learning. Her mother Helen is a carer by nature, and that rubbed off too. When it came time to leave school and choose a college course, Lucy opted for radiation therapy in Trinity because a close friend in the local GAA community had died from cancer.
A couple of years after she started in Trinity, and rugby had barged into her life, she had to divert to a mix of jobs to allow time for her new sport. One of those diversions was to work as a home help.
“That was amazing — just class. At home we’re farmers and I grew up with my grandmother living with us our whole lives. I was so close to her. I think she was my soul-mate. All the extended family would have always been around so I kind of grew up around elderly people. And my mam is such a carer, she would have minded my grandmother’s sister and her cousin. I think I just have an affinity with older people on the back of it. There’s so much to learn from them.”
The rugby bit is a story of how the IRFU sometimes turn over the right stone in the search for talent. In this case it gave them a precious one, devoted to the GAA through her club, Tinahely, and county, Wicklow. Her folks were steeped in the games. As well as pulling tug-of-war, which earned him a European medal, her dad Pat had played for Ballymanus, or the Billies as they are known — a place best described as off the beaten track. Her older sister Emily played alongside her in the club where their mam was a founding member. Her three younger brothers togged out on the men’s side of the house.
But in passing, she picked up on the Ireland women’s Grand Slam of 2013 and was genuinely moved by it. She mentioned as much in an interview given as part of her role as captain of the Wicklow Ladies’ Gaelic football team, under ‘favourite sporting moments.’
“I think it’s to see people getting to live their dreams. Like Katie Taylor. Those sort of moments. Whereas in a movie or something I won’t cry half as much. So I remembered that cos it really stuck with me. It wasn’t that I ever thought I’d play rugby. Ever. It was just really moving. I was 19.”
The line was spotted by Stan
McDowell in the IRFU Sevens programme. So one day Lucy is in Trinity preparing for her second year exams when an email from McDowell pops up in her inbox. Would she fancy a trial?
What happened next tells us something about the speed with which Ms Mulhall could go from 0-60mph on the intensity scale. Three days a week she was up in Dublin with McDowell for two-hour sessions on handling and passing. About four months into her new sport she was taken to a Sevens training tournament in England. Time to make an impression.
When at first she came home and told her folks about the IRFU interest her dad took her out to a field for some tackling practice. He pointed out a ewe. “Off you go,” he said. “Tackle that one.”
Her willingness to go in where it hurt immediately impressed her new coaches who were bemused by the sheep-tackling story. By the time she went off to the Sevens tournament in England she was hot to trot. Recognising the 10m law at penalties was a bit of a problem though. She hit everything in sight, regardless of the circumstances. The referee, as kindly as possible, suggested she ask the coach to sub her off before she was sent off. Cue mortification and apologies to her new pals, who laughed it off.
Then came a short-term contract offer. On the one hand Lucy was blown away by the generosity of club and county in wishing her all the best as she skipped out the door; on the other she was racked with tension over coming back having failed to conquer this new mountain.
Her sister Emily wondered what had happened to the girl who used to be the last to leave the party? If asked to do anything at any time it was always a spontaneous ‘yes’. Lucy became utterly reliant on structure and planning and living by the clock, the diet sheet, the calendar.
“I probably took it too seriously all right for the first two years,” she concedes. “Maybe I needed to, but everything I did was around rugby. I’d be walking around the house at home with a rugby ball all the time, just spinning it in my hands trying to get used to it, the feel of it. My diet? I wouldn’t touch anything that had any sugar in it. I’d be doing extras on my day off. I just didn’t see perspective: all I wanted was rugby. But it ended up catching up with me because it’s not the best way to get the most out of yourself. ‘You’re all in on this now so you’ve got to make it work cos the alternative is too scary.’ Eventually I took the pressure off myself, probably after two years. I started enjoying it and realised I didn’t actually have to be there. It was actually for enjoyment I was there.”
She will forever be grateful to the much maligned Anthony Eddy for having the faith to make her captain of the Sevens squad. He got that bit right. Eddy was brought in for his rugby pedigree, specifically Sevens, more than his communication skills, and Mulhall was one of his star pupils. But soon enough the political penny dropped that women’s sport needed some airtime, and the long and short versions of rugby were put on display.
“When I first went into 15s maybe I struggled with the amount of media (coverage) because with Sevens we were flying under the radar,” she says. “You just got support from your family and friends. It was the same people who watched the games all the time. I just find it sad there’s negativity around women’s rugby at all cos we don’t cling on to Sevens or 15s — we just want to grow the game. And it is sad when our (Sevens) programme comes up as second best a lot of the time.
“The important thing is the people we’re closest to and the people on the inside know the real story. They know how much work we put in and what kind of people we are. We sat down as a group a long time ago on this and we continue to check ourselves so we can stand over the people we are and what we’re doing. We can’t control the media. The best thing we can do is get results. So the silver medal in Seville was massive for us. Canada — then to go and actually get the bronze there was massive as well. Toulouse last week still hurts but even missing out on silver there, coming fourth — we’re holding our own in the top four now and that’s huge for us.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Every so often the good ship Catastrophe flies the women’s flag and takes to the high seas. Last year it docked in Italy for the short trip inland to Parma where the 15s bombed at a qualifier for this year’s World Cup. Mulhall is a Sevens girl and the opener there against Spain was actually her 15s debut. They lost — an upset that registered on the Richter scale — and she was dropped promptly by coach Adam Griggs. You’re in; you’re out; maybe that conversation didn’t go on too long?
“Yeah it was short,” she says. “I won’t go into the details but I’ve a lot of respect for Adam Griggs and I was very raw at the time in probably the most important tournament for Ireland 15s in a long time. In hindsight I can understand, but I kept having to check myself that I was still the person I wanted to be when I was captain of the team at Sevens.
“Can you still stand for what you want to stand for when you’re the 26th player in a squad at 15s? I think it challenged me, and with the Sevens this year I made sure players felt valued whether you’re on the pitch or not. It’s a difficult place not to be because that’s where we get all the rewards. I spent a lot of time on the phone to my partner Michael and my family because I didn’t want to bring it onto the players in the squad. They were challenging me to put the team first, to go and support the girls and not be getting selfish and into a ‘poor me’ situation. My career has had more personal highs than lows in terms of selection. Your values can’t fall apart the first time you’re dropped. I think it all happens for a reason.”
Some years ago I interviewed one of the most effective players of his generation, truly a member of the warrior class. If you had him running out alongside you on match day then immediately the desired outcome looked achievable. In the interview environment however he had all the warmth of a fish, for whom swimming with the media was tedium itself.
When it was done and dusted he suggested we bung it over to him so he could check it over before going to print. Eh, no thanks bud. Afterwards we wondered what he would do in the afterlife. Born and raised in the rich rugby belt of south Dublin he won’t want for a start in that next life, and if he applies himself like he did to his rugby then the mortgage will be paid off early.
But it takes all sorts. At 23 Lucy Mulhall had a mini career crisis when all her friends were coming out of college and launching themselves into the real world. She found herself asking this question: “Oh God, like what am I doing with my life?”
You have to laugh. When devotion to rugby couldn’t fit in with her studies in Trinity she leaned on her parents and worked for a year, and then transferred her course credits from Trinity to UCD for a science degree. On completion of that she did a two-year Masters in maths. Jeez, you reckon anyone will employ this well-travelled, high performance athlete with a combination of academic and life skills?
“I get such purpose out of rugby I often wonder what’s going to replace it,” she says. “I know what I want to do from my private life, and I want to be a mother one day. I know that would bring me massive purpose. I still don’t know what I’m going to offer the world career wise. But yeah I’m really excited for it — there was a time when I was scared by it. There was even a time not so long ago when I actually had myself convinced that I had to finish rugby earlier than I will do, just to get on with that part of my life. I thought that after this (Sevens) World Cup (in September) that was going to be it.
“Now nothing will stop me from wanting to become an Olympian, not that I want to become an Olympian necessarily, but I’m just enjoying myself so much. You do have to be so selfish at times — my partner Michael: he’s so patient, so supportive. But as long as I’m enjoying it I think it brings out the best in me.”
It takes all sorts. And Lucy Mulhall is a good one. Now if she whacks over the restaurant receipt, the bread and butter of any hard-pressed hack, she will be in the Olympic class.