We are honoured to be part of Brian O’Driscoll’s momentous occasion
I’ve been fortunate to be at many famous sporting occasion but today’s events will surpass them all
I was in the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, screaming myself hoarse, when Sonia O’Sullivan was agonizingly beaten by Gabriela Szabo in the 5000 metres final.
Today marks the first time we, the Irish women’s rugby team, will tog out to play in our own national rugby stadium.
What I am conscious of when writing this is to get across just how privileged we all feel. The opportunity may have been a long time coming and we have earned the right, but we are honoured to be part of such a momentous occasion as Brian O’Driscoll’s last Irish game in Dublin.
For us, now, it is all about the performance. That’s what really matters. We don’t want people watching us because of past exploits. We want them to see us perform in the here and now. That’s all that matters to us.
So while it’s a huge deal we need to compartmentalise it. Just another game. A chance to right the wrongs of Twickenham. But we can be inspired by remembering the great achievements of Irish women in sport.
Along with my team-mates – Fiona Coghlan, Jenny Murphy, Grace Davitt and Jeanette Feighery –- I was fortunate enough to be in the Excel Arena in London on the day Katie Taylor won gold for Ireland in 2012.
Going further back to 2000, I was in the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, screaming myself hoarse, when Sonia O’Sullivan was agonizingly beaten by Gabriela Szabo in the 5000 metres final. I travelled to support my training team having been a 400 metre hurdler in a former life!
I will never forget how proud I was to be an Irish woman on both those days.
We’re hoping that today provides new memories for young and old supporters who come to support our game for the first time ever (we know the boisterous regulars from Ashbourne RFC will be there).
My earliest sporting memories are intertwined with my dad, Tom Cantwell, and going to football matches. I spent most of my Sunday’s growing up like most kids, reliably stuck on dad’s arm travelling football games across the county. Tom followed the Dubs wherever they roamed and the guarantee of a flag used to secure my partnership on the road.
I never really watched the games. I had better things to be investigating, busying myself with whatever mischief I could find around the ground.
When the summer months rolled around I knew it meant one thing; we would be going to Croke Park. I was 10 years old in 1991 when Dublin and Meath battled it out over four Leinster championship games. Was at every one of them.
It was deadly serious stuff by the finish but to me, as I skipped down Clonliffe road each Sunday and the Hogan stand came into view, it was another great adventure.
Although I sensed the heartbreak after David Beggy’s winning point. I also remember the feeling of overwhelming relief in 1995 when we beat Tyrone in the All-Ireland final. To witness the great Peter Canavan and all of Tyrone’s dismay when his equalising point was disallowed was my first glimpse of the cruelty of sport. But mostly the joy!
Not that I was a big footballer myself. Or rugby player for that matter. Until Moss Keane’s daughter and my friend Sarah guided me towards UL Bohs RFC, I was a runner. Fingallians athletics club was where it all started. I competed at All-Ireland level, doing well in my age grades, but I was left behind when running against Susan Smith and her like.
I was on a few Irish relays teams but never competed abroad. Running on the Santry track was the high water mark.
Being part of the training group in UL before Sydney – which included Tom Comyns, Tomas Coman, Gary Ryan – was a great experience and gave me the physical foundation and training ethic any young athlete could wish for.
Athletics wasn’t my calling though. Still, my track background and considering women’s rugby in Ireland was still a young sport I had a pace advantage over most players.
The irony is not lost on me that the years of endurance I built up on those lonely nights running are the reason why I have survived so long in the game.
Croke Park may have been my first exposure to major sporting events but like the Aviva Stadium, win or lose, it commands your attention and respect. I think most people will have experienced that giddy feeling of sitting in a packed stadium, waiting for the game to start in absolute awe of the palpable atmosphere.
Then it starts and everyone is taken along for the ride.
Then you get there as a player and all of that has to be blocked out. You can’t just go with the flow, you must live in every moment so you can make decisions that impact the result.
Until today, my best memory of being at the Aviva would have to be the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final. All of the UL Bohs gang were on the south terrace when Ronan O’Gara jumped into the crowd. Yes, I was a Munster fan because that’s where my rugby experience began.
When the Aviva re-opened up in August 2010 we were heading off to the World Cup in England the following day so we were paraded around the stadium at half-time.A few weeks later Donegal and Waterford were locked in battle at Croke Park in the All-Ireland intermediate final, or more specifically Nora Stapleton was staring down Niamh Briggs.
So today’s experience will be nothing new to them! And we have all played in front of partisan French crowd in Pau. But that’s next week’s story.
We have won the Grand Slam and been through some amazing experiences along the way but this, on International Woman’s Day, will be special.