Fiona Hayes and Irish squad set sights on IRB World Cup semi-final place

Ireland prop outlines early target ahead of group clash againt USA on Friday


Sometime around 2007 Fiona Hayes went into a maul during a UL Bohemians match against Shannon. She came out with the ball and, as she describes it, “I didn’t have a clue.” Hers was a slow, late conversion from soccer to rugby. But at 24-years-old the match against Shannon provided her Eureka moment.

Living in Limerick and in the shadow of Thomond Park, a relationship with the game had been established. A slow burner but passionate, her reluctance to make the move from the rugby terrace to the pitch was in part that soccer was a good provider for her needs.

Studying for a Masters in the University of Limerick she took a leap of faith. Not withstanding she had captained Limerick University to the Irish Intervarsities and won the FAI Cup with Cork side Douglas Hall, her sports world would never be round again.

“I took rugby on at 24. I used to look at rugby and say ‘Oh My God’ I don’t know if I’d be able for that’,” she says. “One of the first games I played for Bohs was against Shannon and I hadn’t really got a clue . . . I remember going into the middle of a maul and coming out with the ball. I got stuck in and I was like ‘yeah’ I like this game. When I got into it more it was ‘whow, this is what I should have been playing all along.

“I adore the game. My brother played. I only started playing later in life but it’s a massive part of my life and at home. It’s great they understand the game. They come to watch. When I go home, myself and my dad talk about rugby all the time. When you love something it’s not over, it’s just part of what we do.”

Broader interest

She wasn’t involved in the last World Cup but was part of the 2013 Grand Slam success, which kicked off broader interest in the women’s game. It also turned a switch in the heads of the players in that they didn’t inherently feel inferior anymore.

That self-belief, they hope, will carry with them to the French Rugby Federation HQ at Marcoussis on Friday when they begin their World Cup group games against USA. There are three groups of four teams. Winning a group or being the best runner-up across the three groups would provide a semi-final place.

“Our first goal . . . we’d be looking at USA. But we’d definitely be looking at top four, which would be our biggest goal,” she says. “That would mean the top of each group go through and then one runner-up out of the other three groups, so either take that runners-up spot or win the group. We know we have a tough one with USA and obviously New Zealand, who are the World Champions . . . top four is definitely what we’re aiming at.”

The players know there’s a bigger picture. Since the Grand Slam win, there has been an evangelical spirit to all they have done. It has been 18 months of selling the game as much as winning, although the two are inextricably linked.

Katie Taylor has been behind them, handing out jerseys, watching warm-up matches and speaking a ton of humble, common sense. Maybe just being there, showing interest has been as useful as anything she’s said. “That’s exactly it,” says the Irish forward. “We never anticipated the reaction we got after winning the Grand Slam and when that was happening as a team we even discussed what we were doing for women’s sport.

“We had the night of a presentation of jerseys and the coach got in all the past players. They were so emotional telling us what we had done for the game and they could see it now that they were not involved . . . that we put women’s rugby on the map, especially in Ireland.

“They were so emotional saying what we did in the Grand Slam was really something for women’s rugby. This World Cup we just want to bring the sport to life more and more.”

This week’s high stakes matters are more mundane. Rehabbing a twisted ankle is ongoing and preparing for the first match brings simplicity to the fortnight’s task. “We are there to take part in the World Cup and play the best we can,” she says. “We understand we want to do well and we want to do well for the game back home.”

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