Wednesday 17 January 2018

Grand Slam tilt built on Gaelic foundations

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

LESS than three years ago they were opponents in an All-Ireland football final, but Niamh Briggs and Nora Stapleton are now international rugby team-mates on the crest of a wave.

Mention the 2010 All-Ireland intermediate ladies football final, in which Stapleton's Donegal beat Waterford, and Irish full-back and penalty-taker Briggs winces as she confesses: "I'm still sore about that."

They are not the only members of the ground-breaking women's rugby team with Gaelic football backgrounds.

The Simon Geoghegan of the side – flying blonde winger Alison Miller – is a daughter of the late Laois legend Bobby, and she played senior inter-county football for two seasons.

Scrum-half Larissa Muldoon, from near Ballybofey, also played underage for Donegal before moving to study in Wales.

And among Ireland's new Sevens squad are Ashling Hutchins and Claire Keoghane, two of Cork's all-conquering footballers.

Coach Philip Doyle, whose wife Nicola was in the vanguard of Irish women's rugby 20 years ago, has no problem admitting that his Grand Slam-chasing team has benefited hugely from the explosion of women's Gaelic football. "In the early days we got a lot of soccer and hockey players, but women's GAA is now a big pull for us," he says.

"It's a very natural switch for them because they already have great hand-eye co-ordination and are used to quite a physical team sport."

Yet, it is doubtful that anyone has taken a more unlikely route to international rugby than out-half Stapleton (29).

The Buncrana native has never played a game of club rugby within her native Donegal, where she excelled at Gaelic football and soccer.

Those talents earned her a sports scholarship at UCD but it was only after she graduated in sports management seven years ago that she first encountered an oval ball.

A social game of 'tag rugby' saw her quickly recruited by Old Belvedere.

And, while working her way up the Irish rugby ladder, Stapleton worked full-time as a GAA coach in Dublin for six years.

"I was in the bank for a year and a half, then went to Australia to play rugby, and when I came back I had a few friends working with Dublin county board and, through them, I got a job as a games promotion officer with Ballinteer St Johns," she explains.

Stapleton recently left role that to become the IRFU's women's and girls development manager.

"The (GAA) club threw me a going-away party the day after we beat Scotland, which made me realise just how much I'll miss them," she says.

Like Briggs, her growing rugby success eventually ended her inter-county GAA career.

Ashleigh Baxter, Ireland's 20-year-old winger from Belfast Harlequins, is one of a new generation who played only rugby, but Stapleton says most of her team-mates have benefited from playing Gaelic at some stage.

"Apart from the ball skills, it gives us better vision, and you're used to making decisions on the pitch and trying to guess what the opposition is going to do next," says Stapleton

"The pathway for girls in rugby is still a little disjointed," she concedes.

"A lot of clubs are now bringing them in through mini-rugby, but it varies a lot and it's our job now to get firm structures in place."

The IRFU has shipped some criticism for putting far less investment into the women's game, but it already has a development officer in each province, with talk of two more to come in Belfast, on top of the job into which Stapleton has stepped

Last September she stood on Hill 16, screaming for Donegal as they brought Sam home but, like many of her team-mates, Gaelic football's loss has been rugby's gain.

Irish Independent

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