Years of graft pay off as Joy Neville reaches the pinnacle
Joy Neville put in years of graft to reach Grand Slam pinnacle with Ireland – the legacy of that achievement means she has no regrets about walking away
SHE doesn't remember the exact moment she decided to retire, but something that Ronan O'Gara said in his searingly candid documentary immediately resonated with Joy Neville.
"He said, 'I feel as if I'm done', and that all he was thinking about now was his wife and kids. He knew his priorities had changed and so had mine, the balance had somehow shifted," says Neville.
The Irish women's team's loss of the barnstorming Limerick back-row has been likened to their male counterparts losing Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell, but coach Philip Doyle has a different comparison.
"It's more like losing Jamie Heaslip and not just because she's also a No 8," he explains. "Joy has just got this fantastic skill-set and rugby brain and she brings a huge physicality to the game."
She signs off with 70 caps and when asked about her greatest performance, Doyle doesn't mention that famous match-saving (probably illegal!) last-gasp intervention against Italy to seal the Grand Slam; rather two games against America in the 2010 World Cup.
"We'd never beaten them before; we played them twice and won the first game, but in both matches she was just immense, she just ruled the roost with ball in hand," he gushes.
It seems the ultimate irony that one of the bulwarks of the Irish women's game is finally ready to walk away just when the team have come of age.
"Don't get me wrong," Neville (30) explains. "I could play games until I die, I absolutely love that.
"But in the past year I just wasn't getting the same excitement from going training and getting together with the girls, which was something I always loved.
"That thrill had gone for some reason and the way I feel, if I'm not giving 100pc then I shouldn't be there taking up a place."
Neville, along with team-mates Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell, has been the beating heart of the Irish team for as long as anyone can remember.
Doyle calls them his "family of three".
"Joy was the catalyst, not just on the field but off it, the one who set standards and kept driving things forward," he says.
He never once dropped her and must now plug the giant eight-shaped hole she has left in the Irish pack, with Laura Guest, Heather O'Brien and Paula Fitzpatrick vying to fill it.
The only girl in a rugby-mad household on Limerick's North Circular Road, as a kid Neville loved playing tap-and-go games in the back garden with her four older brothers.
She came in with a bloody nose once and it was a full week before they realised it was broken.
Her father Gerry played for Bohs and her brother Paul – who played for Connacht and Ireland Sevens – starred for Garryowen, where he now coaches.
But, in her own words, "it was alien to see women playing rugby" in her youth, so she concentrated on basketball in the Salesian convent, with whom she won an All-Ireland Schools League.
Neville was 16 when a leisure centre colleague urged her to try out rugby. Back then the only Limerick club with a women's team was Shannon, so out she headed.
"That first night was daunting but, literally from the moment I started, I completely fell in love with it; it was just second nature to me," she reveals. "I was terribly lucky too because Fiona Steed and Rosie Foley took me under their wings and it just went from there."
Foley is a sister of former Munster and Ireland No 8 Anthony; Steed is married to the legendary John Hayes. This year's breakthrough, and especially live TV coverage of their final Six Nations game, brought the recognition and respect their era could only dream about.
"When I first started with Ireland (in 2003) we never won anything," Neville stresses.
"The score in my first home international, against England in Thomond Park, was almost 80-0. For the first five years it was all about trying to minimise the points our opponents would put up."
Her dad travelled to Scotland for her first away international, which was belatedly switched to a different location three hours away. She couldn't contact him and he turned up to an empty pitch.
Eleven years later the Irish women's team no longer sleep on friends' floors for collective training or buy their own jerseys.
International training is a succession of weekend camps; they follow personalised strength and conditioning and nutrition programmes and have a permanent home base in Ashbourne RFC.
After losing 17 consecutive games to England they finally beat them (25-0) last year, and the Grand Slam has earned them their first ever Six Nations game in the Aviva this year (March 8 v Italy).
"Since becoming affiliated to the IRFU (in 2008) we have received more resources and support, and since 2010 especially we've become properly professional," Neville says.
So why leave now?
"It just got to a stage where I missed so many things. I've had 11 years of putting everything on hold for rugby, every single weekend, countless family events and even my best friend's 21st. I don't think people understand the huge sacrifices the girls make," she says.
The game will remain her job: she is director of rugby at Limerick Institute of Technology, where she coaches both men and women.
Her club (UL Bohs) managed to persuade her back for the League Cup and Doyle got her up to Ashbourne to give her old team-mates a pre-season pep talk but, from now on, she will be a spectator.
A new role as co-commentator on the IRFU's live match streaming will provide a helpful distraction, but already she has rediscovered the delight of exercising simply for the love of it.
"I'm nearly doing double the training that I used – mostly running and cycling – but the freedom of doing it when I feel like it is just fantastic," she says.
Her girlfriend Simona Coppola proposed just before Christmas and they plan to marry in France in 2015, so there are exciting times ahead on a personal level.
Neville is relaxed and confident in her own skin and her sexuality has always been what it should be for any athlete: an irrelevance.
"My family and friends have always known I'm gay, and I think the fact that I'm very comfortable and open about it means that other people are too," she reasons.
Retirement has brought "absolutely no regrets" and the happy knowledge that she was part of a vanguard that has left Irish women's sport a massive legacy.
Two weeks after the Grand Slam she was stopped six times during one 40-minute jog, four times by complete strangers, all offering heartfelt congratulations and gratitude for the respect the Ireland team had earned for female athletes and women generally.
But most encouraging was her experience on a recent night out, when she found herself in the company of eight young fellas.
"One of them said, 'don't you play rugby for Ireland?', and I was waiting for some smart remarks because I'd heard so many smarmy ones over the years and the banter had already been flying.
"But, actually, they just seemed genuinely appreciative and respectful of what we'd achieved," she says.
"I was really taken back by that but it was lovely. You do feel now that people understand what we do and respect us as rugby players."
WOMEN’S SIX NATIONS FIXTURES
JANUARY 31 (Fri)
Ireland v Scotland, Ashbourne RFC, 7.30
FEBRUARY 7 (Fri)
Ireland v Wales, Ashbourne RFC, 7.30
FEBRUARY 22 (Sat)
England v Ireland, Twickenham, 6.20.
MARCH 8 (Sat)
Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, 5.0.
MARCH 14 (Fri)
France v Ireland, Pau, 6.45