Balance and sacrifice are central to Claire’s life as a doctor and international rugby player.
In a landscape where there is a huge disparity between the resources available to the men’s and women’s game, women who want to play rugby at the top level in Ireland must find a way to make the balance work.
Finding time to train as an elite level athlete and manage a medical career is undoubtedly a challenge but Claire, like many of her team-mates, has embraced the level of sacrifice required to play rugby at the top level.
Here, she discusses how she developed her passion for the game, the unique set of challenges female rugby players face and her rugby playing aspirations.
What made you passionate about rugby?
I didn’t start playing rugby until I was 16. I took up tag rugby at school. I went to Coleraine High and they’d just started it whenever I was doing GCSEs at the time.
I suppose at school I was doing all sorts of sports. Through primary school I was crap at sport, it was coming into secondary school I kind of started my sports career with hockey. I was captain for the B team so I wasn’t very good! In first year, I can remember my hockey coach saying to me at the time that I was a shrinking violet. From then I was just like “no I don’t want to be this shy little girl who’s not reaching her potential”. So, I think from then I was like “right, I want to be better at everything that I’m doing here”.
I was playing hockey, football and athletics then rugby came up and I just took to it. I loved watching rugby because my family, my parents and my brothers would all have been into rugby. We watched a lot of games.
So, I got into tag rugby then Ballymoney started up a full contact women’s team, so I joined that when I was in upper sixth and just absolutely loved it. I guess it was the team aspect of it attracted me to it. It was more team-orientated than any other sport I played even though I played hockey and football, there was just something different and more enjoyable about rugby. I think because of the physicality and putting your body on the line for your teammates and everyone else was doing the same thing, there was just that real camaraderie in rugby that you don’t get in the other sports.
I’m the sort of person who likes a challenge so with rugby it was something new, it was something different and whenever I started it was like “oh I love this, I want to learn more and play at a better level”. So, that’s how I got into rugby!
Was there anyone you looked up to? Who were your biggest influences?
In rugby it probably would have been Dan Carter. There’s kind of a family connection to him, very far out, I tell people he’s my 4th cousin but he’s related to my dad somehow – very far out!
We would have always looked up to him as being unbelievable but also he’s part of us! New Zealand would have been one of the teams I would really have followed I suppose but in terms of other influences growing up I’d say I didn’t really have any big sporting heroes outside of him.
My biggest influences in general probably would be my parents. They were just total role models for me – hard-working and just great people. My dad’s a farmer and my mum’s a teacher and they just brought us up really well and gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted to do. They didn’t push us into doing anything and didn’t stop us from doing anything and just supported us in whatever we wanted to do. I think that was something that was huge for all three of us growing up.
What was your ambition when you started? What was it like to step on the field for Ireland for the first time?
I never thought that I would be playing for Ireland. My first couple of years of playing rugby I got onto the Ulster squad. I go onto that when was 18 and I thought that was the highest level I’d ever get to.
I’d a couple of friends then when I moved to Belfast who were in and out of the Ireland training squad and stuff and I was like ‘flip, I’m never going to be where they’re at’. But then I guess it was just through hard work I got there. I took a year out during university to do a different degree. In that year I had a bit more time and got really into the gym. Just worked on my strength and fitness and stuff. It was after that year then that I got picked up for the Ireland squad basically just because they were like “This girl looks athletic, let’s bring her in.”
I wasn’t good enough at that point because I didn’t make it but yeah, I never really thought that I would make it to Ireland. It was just from persistent hard work and training that I managed to get in.
In terms of my first cap for Ireland, I think my main feeling was relief whenever I ran on the pitch. I’d been in the six nations squad in 2015 and it was just the training squad at that point – I didn’t make it onto the match day squad or anything.
So, I knew at that point that I had things to work on. Then I was involved in the first ever women’s Autumn International against England at Twickenham. I was on the bench for that one and ended up being an unused sub. My parents and friends came over for it so to not get on was just complete disappointment. The run up to my first cap was a bit of a rocky journey!
Then coming round to the 2016 Six Nations I was like, ‘right, this is my time’. We were training quite well, the coach said he was happy with how I was going. Then 2 weeks before the first game against Wales I started having issues with my heart whenever I was down in the Irish training camp. I was getting palpitations and basically I was told ‘look you’re not going to be able to play for us until you get this checked out and get seen to’. So, from being told by the Irish coach that I was probably going to be starting against Wales to being told ‘No, you’re actually going to have to go and get a heart procedure done’, I was like flip am I ever going to get this first cap?
So, I ended up the day of that first Six Nations game in hospital getting my heart sorted out. I got a procedure done then two weeks later I got my first cap against Italy so I think that’s probably why relief was the main feeling. I guess it was a real sense of disbelief as well because I never really thought I’d be good enough to put on the Irish shirt. That’s probably something that I’ve had to work on is my lack of self-confidence in my ability. So, getting on that pitch I was like ‘oh my goodness, I’ve done something good here’. The sense of achievement as well and just having friends and family there, just it was unreal!
What role does faith play in your life?
I suppose with my faith, it’s not something that I’ve always had, I’d say I became a Christian about 6 or 7 years ago. Now my relationship with Jesus is just a massive part of my life and it’s something that’s brought me so much joy, peace and excitement for the future. Bringing that into rugby I believe I’ve been blessed by God to have the ability that I have and He’s given me whatever talent or hard-working inner drive that I have and I just want to use that in order to give back.
I see myself playing rugby and training that I do as a form of worship to God. It’s something that’s an undercurrent in everything. It’s not something that I’m going to be shouting about to my teammates. It is something that I talk to a lot of them about, it’s just something that’s there, that I’m playing for this, I think of it as an audience of one. Yeah there’s friends watching, yeah there’s coaches and other teammates watching me play or watching me train but it’s the audience of One that’s really watching. That’s kind of how I see it. It means that I have more than just rugby, more than just my job, more than just this life. There is something more that I have more to look forward to.
How do you get into the right mindset before a game?
I do get pretty nervous before a game. I think it’s probably something to do with doubting myself or doubting my ability in rugby.
I’ve heard Andrew Trimble talk about it before thinking, ‘oh my word I’m going to be found out as a fraud, this is the match where they’re going to see I shouldn’t be here’. I have all those sorts of thoughts. Running up to the game, a few days before I try to remind myself of positives, so like things that I do well or my strengths on the pitch. So, I’ll try to focus on those things and maybe even look back over video footage from a previous match where I’ve done something right instead of focussing on ‘oh my goodness, I missed that tackle what if it happens again?’.
Then on match day there’s always a bit of a pre match ritual. The night before I’ll usually do my tan, have to be tanned, it’s key! I’m sure the guys do it as well! Then I guess on the bus to the game and I’ll be listening to a bit of music so I have a pre-match playlist that I would usually have going. That would be a mixture of songs that would get me pumped up but also a few Christian tunes just to keep my head in the right place. I would always say a prayer or two, just for safety in the game and that sort of thing. Before the match, when we get into the changing rooms everybody prepares in a different way. I’m actually quite calm, I just sit and take it in and watch everyone. There are some girls that would be dancing, jumping about or shouting. It’s a whole mixture of ways people react and prepare for the game. I guess I go at it more sort of calm and then once it comes to the game, I need to get into the game early. I need to get a hit in or get a carry on the ball pretty quick just to get going.
You’ve had a positional change from the backs to the forwards – is that something that came about from a love of getting stuck in? What’s that been like?
Initially, that wasn’t actually my decision to move from the centre to back row. From when I started playing rugby, I’ve played centre and wing mainly. I played one season in the back row for Queens whenever I was going through and really really enjoyed it. That was just because they were short in back rows and I was like ‘yeah, I’ll jump in there’. But then after that it was back to centre again.
With Ireland I suppose I’d just been centre or wing so it was last year during the inter pros, the Ulster coach had approached me early on in the season and he basically said to me “look I think you’re playing the wrong position. I don’t think you’re getting enough ball in the centre, I don’t think you’re being used enough. You’re physical, you have all these attributes that I just think you’re a back row-er”. So, there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between Ulster and Ireland because the Ulster coach was convinced I was a back row-er but Ireland, obviously they’d only ever seen me play centre or wing. They weren’t really convinced that this was a goer but I was told, play the inter pros, see how you get on and we’ll maybe bring you back on to the Ireland squad if you play well.
I played the inter pros and just absolutely loved it. I loved that you just got so involved in the game, like tackling, carrying ball, hitting rucks. It suited me down to the ground. Not having to really think about it, just going and just being so involved was just class. The first game of the inter pros, I think I made 28 tackles and I thought to myself I missed 2 tackles in that, I was so annoyed at myself because I missed those tackles. The coach was just like ‘Claire you made 28 tackles, what are you talking about?’. I was like ‘No, but I shouldn’t be missing any!’. From then I was just like ‘I absolutely love this’.
From there then after the inter pros, I was brought back on to the Ireland squad as centre. It was kind of difficult going back to there. It was fine because I’d obviously played it for years before, but I knew that I really enjoyed back-row and wanted to play in the back row. I played the first match of the autumn internationals last year in the centre, off the bench. There were 2 weeks between that first game and the next game against England. I got a phone call in the week running up to the England game and it was the coach saying, ‘Look Claire I know I didn’t want you to be a back row but now I kind of think that you are a back row so you’re going to be on the bench as a back row-er for this England game’. I was like ‘right ok, I’ve never played in the back row for Ireland before and you’re throwing me on the bench against England at Twickenham!’. That was my first cap as a back-row against England at Twickenham so that was unreal.
That must have felt like a baptism of fire?
Totally. At number 8 as well, I’d played 7 for Ulster and picked off the back of the scrum whenever we were attacking. It was kind of like schoolboy rugby where you have your 7 there to defend but if you want an attacking scrum you throw them to 8. It was 8 against England and that was actually the first time I’d ever played against England as well. That was a huge deal for me.
England have a professional set-up for their women’s team don’t they?
Yeah, they’ve gone professional since the start of last year. They’re away on a summer series at the minute with the USA, New Zealand and Canada so they’re away over to the Americas to play in that which is amazing for them but is just going to increase the gulf between them and us.
What can be done to help promote women’s rugby in Ireland?
I think there have been huge strides in the right direction in the past couple of years. Even from when I started playing with Ireland there have been positive movement but obviously not to the extent that there has been in England or France.
I’d say at our club level probably isn’t good enough at the moment. I think there are 8 teams in the all-Ireland league for women and there’s quite a gulf between the top teams in that and the bottom teams. I guess just increasing the standard of rugby within the league in Ireland. I guess that’s through good coaching which is going to take more investment, all that sort of stuff. It’s kind of a vicious circle because we need more investment but then we need to be producing a standard of rugby that’s good enough to watch to bring in more investment, bring in more support.
At an Irish level, we definitely are getting more support, there’s more people turning out to watch but still nothing compared to the other countries. I guess we need to start performing better because we haven’t really been performing that well in the past couple of years. Like in the World Cup we came 8th and it was a pretty shocking performance overall and then in last year’s Six Nations obviously we came 5th which was our worst we’ve done in a lot of years.
I guess we hadn’t been performing well enough but is that because our league isn’t good enough and we’re not getting enough game time at a certain level? These are all questions that I have, I’m not really sure what is going to fix it. I guess more time together would be better, more time with a rugby ball in our hands would be better because I suppose we’re all trying to hold down jobs and make money as well as have our rugby on the side as our hobby. We’re putting so much time into that and not really getting a huge amount back. A bit more investment would be ideal but as I said it’s a vicious cycle. It’s not an overnight thing but it’s definitely going the right way.
Women playing at club level wouldn’t have been that common in the past? Until relatively recently it didn’t seem to be that big a thing?
There’s definitely a lot more girls and women playing. There’s a lot more opportunities for young girls which is amazing and that’s definitely something we need because that’s what girls in England have. They have the progression through so they’re playing as minis and they’re playing as under-age girls then they’re progressing on and just getting better and better. So they have the basic skills from an early age whereas people like me, I picked it up at 16, 18 and I’ve been trying to learn really quite quickly. It has been a bit of a quick development and being thrown into the deep end a lot of the time.
Have women made the transition across from other sports?
I think with the movement of girls from other sports, that’s been more apparent in the Irish 7’s. They’ve got girls across from Irish hockey and gaelic and other sports, athletics and things and then taught them basic skills of rugby and rules and all that sort of stuff. I suppose within Ulster most of girls probably would have played other sports and decided at quite a late stage oh I’m going to try out rugby and realised they enjoyed it quite a lot. I suppose within Ulster, we have 1 team in the all-Ireland league, now 2 teams because Malone were promoted this year so that’s going to be something that will be pretty important for women’s rugby in Ulster is that we’ve got 2 teams in that all Ireland league hopefully playing at a higher level and progressing the girls in those teams. But yeah, it’s a struggle.
What motivates you to continue working as doctor and play rugby?
Yeah, that is definitely something I‘ve had to learn in the past couple of years. I graduated back in 2016 and that first year out of uni was horrendous!
I was working full time and training for the world cup as well and life was literally just work and training and there was no social life, no time for myself, no time for anything outside of work and rugby and there was no balance. So I suppose from then, looking back at that year, so I took a year out from the World Cup so August of 2017, I took a year out of medicine then, just because that year was so hectic and I wasn’t going to be able to take a full month off work for the world cup so I thought if I can’t take a month off I might as well take a year!
I guess my career, my medicine has been what’s kind of taken a backseat while I’m playing rugby. Even this past year, I’ve gone less than full time for part of the year so from August through to April last year there I was doing 60% of a full rota in medicine so that I could do more training. That’s just a decision I made just because I thought life’s more important, I don’t want to be this person who’s just going straight from training to work back to training again and not seeing people. I’d done that and it wasn’t something that I wanted to continue with. I wanted to have a social life, I wanted to invest time in the people that I cared about which I totally had to just put to the side for that year.
Medicine has kind of taken a wee bit of a backseat but I see that as something that I will hopefully have for decades to come. I’m gonna have medicine, I’m gonna be a doctor for however many years, 30, 40 more years. Rugby’s only going to be here for another, I don’t know how long? I keep telling myself I’ll finish after the next World Cup. I think I’ll only be playing for another couple of years anyway so I might as well give it as much as I can I’m still playing.
What’s the best advice that you’ve received? What would you tell your younger self?
If I could go back and speak to my 17-year-old self, I would probably tell myself that work and rugby aren’t the be all and end all. Probably just to chill out a bit and let yourself have a rest. Because I think that was something that I probably didn’t cope well with, I just was going 100% at everything and I managed to burn myself out pretty well! So those would definitely be some of the top things I would say.
I suppose as well probably don’t care so much about what other people think. There are so many people that are gonna have opinions on what you do with your life and in anything I suppose, people are going to be talking or have their own opinions. At the end of the day, it’s your life, it’s what makes you happy. For me, it’s about keeping me happy, my friends and family happy and making sure that in whatever I’m doing that I’m glorifying God.
So yeah, I suppose that would be the advice that I would give myself. And advice that I’ve been given in the past, so it was actually a girl that I used to play rugby with. She had basically just said to me, look you just need to give your all, always give 100% or more so than you can look back and even if things haven’t gone right, you’re not going to have regrets because you know you’ve given everything for it. I guess that’s something I would always look back on.
Are there any quotes that you think of often or live your life by?
One that keeps cropping up is probably “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work”. That’s kind of something that I see myself as living by because I never thought I was overly talented or I wouldn’t be the most skilful player or anything like that but I just work hard and I’m pretty driven so I guess that something that I kind of pride myself on, is that I’m always going to work pretty hard and try to always better myself and develop to try and be that best that I can so I guess that would be one quote.
There’s a Bible verse that I keep pretty close to my heart which is “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” that’s from Philippians 4;13 and that’s just something that if I feel like I’m not strong enough I know that I’ve got God there with me and He’s holding me up or whatever.
So, I’ve got 2 different favourite movies. One is Shawshank Redemption, so good. And the other is Lion King, favourite Disney movie. I used to be obsessed with the Lion King, I have all of the memorabilia in my room still!
What’s best investment you’ve ever made?
Probably spending money on travelling. That’s something that I love doing. I suppose that’s time and money. In the past few years I’ve been away a lot of places, mostly on my own – Canada, South East Asia, North America, South America, parts of Europe. That’s just something, like the experiences and memories you get whenever you’re away, that’s something money can’t buy so definitely travelling would be one of those things.