I was a late convert to playing rugby even though I had been a rugby supporter from 12 having attended Crescent College, a Jesuit school in Limerick with a very strong rugby tradition. Although the boys featured regularly in Munster Junior and Senior cups, with some making it to Irish Schools sides, there weren’t any teams for the girls then. I played senior hockey and competed in Athletics at school level and show-jumped competitively outside of school.
After finishing at ‘The Crescent’ I attended the University of Ulster where I studied Sport and Leisure Studies and following my undergraduate course undertook a PGCE in Physical Education. Again hockey and equestrian events were the sports I participated in while studying at Jordanstown, although I did try my hand at athletics, soccer and basketball and attended many Invervarsities while at UU. Following my PGCE I was working in a summer camp for children with special needs and got chatting with another leader about what I could do to keep fit. I was no longer at University and wasn’t a member of any club teams. The suggestion that I should join with the pre-season rugby training led by an excellent coach at Cooke (the nearest women’s rugby club) with a focus on S&C and fitness was attractive for me. There would be no contact so no need to worry! I find it very hard to train alone so the idea of getting fit with a bunch of girls seemed like a good idea, especially if the coach knew his stuff.
So off I went, training was tough but I enjoyed it and enjoyed the social side of the group even more. The girls at Cooke made me feel welcome immediately, the way they kept each other motivated and how they encouraged everyone at training drew me in. We were a very strange bunch – from 4’10’’ to 6’ 3’’, every shape and aged from 17-30 but yet we pushed each other hard. I was only there for pre-season fitness but as the ball was being introduced with the rugby season drawing closer, I found I was drawn in and couldn’t think of any good reason to leave. I was taught how to tackle, ruck and pass. I had a new group of friends whose company I enjoyed and I was getting fit! When I was asked by the coach what position I played, I said I was a back – it took me a minute or two to understand the loud laughter – I was thinking hockey and he was thinking rugby. Straight away he said, ‘Well, you’re definitely a forward and I think you should try out as a prop!’, I still didn’t take in the significance of what he had said, but went with his suggestion. I had figured out at this stage that he was an excellent coach who researched everything and came to training with every detail considered. I was learning something at every session, which at 26 and as PE teacher, this was important for me. I was in awe of his passion and commitment to ensuring we were prepared for every eventuality. And so began my acquaintance with the scrummage machine, initially, and then learning to lift the 6’3” girl in the line out!
The coaches must have seen potential, as the rugby season started each year with the Interprovincials and they included me in the Ulster squad. My first match was against Leinster, with Alain Roland ex Irish international player and well known referee taking charge. The very first kickoff of my very first game and the ball came dropping out of the sky directly over my head. I caught it cleanly and just stood there, until everyone roared RUN. I was hooked, straight into the thick of it, my first match and I had caught the ball cleanly and made 20 yards (this is not a Prop exaggerating!) and set up the ruck. I did spend the rest of the match wandering around not really knowing where I should be, except for scrums and lineouts, but we won and I loved it!
I continued to play for the rest of the season with Cooke RFC who were a Division 1 team with 3 International players and a number of young talented players. Two girls were soccer internationals and one a cricket international, there were Gaelic players and a gymnast in the group and there was even a Commonwealth javelin thrower on the team. We were competitive, worked hard and played hard and winning followed. During my 4 years at Cooke we won the Division 1 League and the Cup competitions twice travelling the length and breadth of Ireland to do so. The Division 1 teams at the time were in Sligo, Roscommon, Cork, Limerick and Dublin so as players we spent long bus trips in each other’s company and got to know each other very well. I also began coaching at Dungannon RFC with Willie Anderson and the U14 boys, my knowledge was growing as was my interest in all things rugby.
One season after starting to play rugby, I was invited to train with the Irish Squad, in an extended group due to the upcoming World Cup. I had no aspirations at this stage, I hadn’t been playing that long and there were very talented players in the squad. For the Five Nations Tournament I played on the Irish ‘A’ team against Scotland and England ‘A’ sides. For the Welsh game which was played at home in Limerick, I was drafted onto the senior side. I not only made the squad but the starting XV. The match was played at Old Crescent – the club affiliated to ‘The Crescent’ where my love of rugby began. I ‘got’ my first cap on home ground, the first of 30 over my 9 year playing career. My rugby family was extending to players not only from Cooke and Ulster but girls from all four provinces and the Irish Exiles.
The World Cup Squad was to be selected based on players’ performances at the Five Nations. I had a good tournament and made the squad in 1998. My first cap and World Cup debut coming within 3 months of each other. In Amsterdam the highlight was playing Australia and winning the Bowl competition and returning home ranked 8th in the World.
From there, I continued to play for Cooke, Ulster, and Ireland while living in Belfast. Following a move to Dublin in 2000 and after a year of commuting to Belfast to train and play with Cooke and Ulster, I decided to transfer. I had begun to work at St Patrick’s College and was living in Leixlip and travelling the length and breadth of the country for training and matches was taking its toll. I transferred to Blackrock RFC and began training with Leinster. I took some time out of rugby after participating in the European Championships in Almeria, Spain whereI scored my first International try as I was pregnant. I was keen to get back playing and after my son was born in early January – I was back training in March and competed in the European Championships in Lille, France in May. I then transferred to Boyne RFC in Drogheda as they had been promoted to Division 1 and we had moved to Ratoath, Co Meath. I was still playing for Leinster and Ireland in the 5 Nations and in 2002, I was selected to travel to Barcelona to compete in my second World Cup. We returned from this World Cup moving up two rankings to 6th. I continued to play through the 2002-2003 season but sat out the 2003-2004 season to give birth to my daughter. Again this didn’t stop me and I went back to rugby, club, Province and Country for the 2004-2005 season.
However, it was becoming more and more difficult to work full-time, train, play and travel with two children and one of them about to start school. I decided it was all or nothing and retired from playing at all levels at the end of the 2005 rugby season. It was a tough decision but I was very lucky to have represented my country 30 times and played with an amazing group of women throughout this time, at all levels. We had great coaches who sacrificed as much as the players as they didn’t receive any recognition for their efforts not to mind get any type of payment. We were all there for the love of the game.
I couldn’t get away from rugby completely and in 2006, I helped found Ratoath RFC and coached minis, underage, Mens Vets and Tag teams there until 2016. I’m now a rugby Mum and spend my time watching my children play. It’s amazing as I am now meeting players I’d played with all those years ago, on the side of the pitch as our children play against each other.
Another, memorable rugby moment for me was at last year’s World Cup, when the Irish Legends played the England Legends in Belfast during the tournament and my children got to see me play, even if it was at a much slower pace than I used to play at and props were never fast! Again to see players from all over the world come to be part of the World Cup in Ireland, and ex-internationals travel to play on a legends team was astounding.
While I had 30 caps, all of these were received prior to 2006, and I had never received an official ‘cap’. Through the great work of a small group of women and the recognition of the IRFU, the 112 players who represented Ireland between 1993 and 2006 were invited to the Aviva Stadium to special celebratory Awards event, where we all were presented our caps by IRFU President Phil Orr. Not only was this a very special occasion for all of us but it was a fantastic opportunity to catch up and meet everyone again. It was like we had never retired, the stories, the songs and the reminiscing was fantastic. To show how important this was to all of us, 102 of the 112 players travelled to the Awards Ceremony from every corner of the world. From rugby I have friends for life and no matter where I have been around the world at conferences or on holidays, I have met up with and stayed with players who have relocated from Ireland. The Awards event brought us all together again and we are planning next year’s reunion already – with some of the younger ladies planning more Legends matches – at this stage I think I’ll carry the water bottles!
Maura lectures in the area of Primary Physical Education on the Bachelor of Education programme, where Tag Rugby features in core and specialism PE modules. Students also have opportunities to learn more about teaching Tag Rugby during optional evening course offered by the Institute of Education’s Primary PE Team in collaboration with the IRFU Leinster Branch. Maura is also Chair of the Student Sport Ireland Research Committee.