American novelist James Lane Allen once wrote that ‘adversity does not build character, it reveals it,’ an observation with which Ireland Women’s captain Nichola Fryday might concur based on her experiences in rugby.
She has negotiated a journey from Tullamore RFC to captain of the national team through the most turbulent period in Irish women’s rugby, on and off the pitch. Fryday’s quality as a person and a player marks her as a key figure in the regeneration of Irish women’s rugby under new head coach Greg McWilliams.
He handed the 27-year-old Kilcormac native the captaincy ahead of last season’s Six Nations Championship and Fryday will lead the squad in a two Test series in Japan next month. The fixtures represent another landmark in progression terms and it will not be the last in the near future.
The IRFU will offer professional contracts to 40-plus players at 15s – for the first time – and Sevens. There will be different remunerative bands. A senior Sevens contract is worth €18,000 per annum, the top end of the new contracts is likely to be €30,000.
The premise is to try and ensure a more level playing field with their Six Nations rivals, who have already secured financial backing in structuring a professional pathway.
There are other accommodations that should be forthcoming if the Union is to create a domestic framework that will nurture and sustain women’s rugby in Ireland, an evolutionary process that will make the sport, 15s and Sevens, attractive to young girls in greater numbers.
Fryday’s introduction to rugby was serendipitous. Growing up on a dairy farm, she was one of four girls born to Richard and Rose, alongside older sisters Rebecca and Emma and young sibling Jessica. There was room for a pony, so Nichola’s initial passion was horse riding.
At Kilkenny College she embraced hockey and played to representative level at under-16 and under-18. She enjoyed a brief flirtation with rugby as a Transition Year module, playing every fortnight. She went to UCD to study agricultural science, food, and agribusiness management where she took a break from hockey and instead enjoyed the social delights of college as a fresher.
Going into second year her mum suggested that she pop down the road to Tullamore RFC. Nichola loved it. The team progressed in short order from Leinster League Division Two to the All-Ireland League, from which they were relegated after a season. There were some tough experiences.
Fryday recalled: “I remember playing Railway and we lost something like 104-0. We were mortified. We were not bad rugby players, but we were coming up against really good ones. I felt for the likes of Wicklow [this season]. The same thing happened for us. To get a second year is important because they have a chance to acclimatise and progress.”
She shares a notable milestone with former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll as players who won an Irish cap before playing provincial rugby. Fryday’s Test match bow was against Canada in 2016. She had been playing rugby for about two years when the Tullamore coaches sent her for a trial with Connacht.
Fryday explained: “I was training with Connacht during the summer but the interpros were not until December. [The then Ireland head coach] Tom Tierney used to come down to a few of the sessions. Tom asked whether I would come into one of the camps in the lead up to the November series.
“I didn’t really know anyone. It was a daunting experience. Everyone was nice and welcoming. I ended up getting my first cap against Canada and the following week played against the Black Ferns [New Zealand], both in UCD. I then went back and got my first Connacht cap in Tuam.”
An abiding memory of her Test debut was tackling, lots of it – she is technically excellent – and the following week she came off the bench against New Zealand. “To stand in front of the Haka was potentially a once in a lifetime experience. I was tiny at the time.
“I had done a bit of gym work, about half of what I would do now in comparison. I remember being passed the ball and a girl that looked like she weighed three times more than me absolutely smashed me. There was nothing I could do. It was amazing to play against them.”
Fryday has played under three Ireland head coaches – Tierney, Adam Giggs and McWilliams – enduring her fair share of disappointment along the way; not being selected for the 2017 World Cup in Belfield and Ireland’s failure to qualify for the latest incarnation of the global tournament that takes place later in the year.
“With Tom I just stuck my head down and try and get on the best that I could at each session. As you get more experience you start to learn about asking questions, start inquiring about things. When Adam came in that was when I had more of a coach-player relationship speaking to him about plays. Adam was very encouraging. He drove that side.
“With Greg, I am a senior player. He is a very positive voice for us as a squad, after a low [point]. He has been very encouraging and open in conversation. That has been really positive. As you get older and more experienced you do find your voice, not to be argumentative, but to be challenging. It’s about understanding why you are doing it, and if you don’t, ask.”
It is an attitude she has inherited from her parents, her upbringing; “put your head down, get on with the job.” Missing out on World Cup qualification in Italy last September was gut-wrenching but the squad used the subsequent games against the USA and Japan as a cathartic process, determined to give retiring players like Lindsay Peat and Ciara Griffin an appropriate send-off.
“For us as a squad that was our focus, to focus on the rugby, enjoying being together and playing together. That was my attitude, everything outside of that was irrelevant to me at that time. I just wanted to play rugby, to be selected and enjoy those last few weeks with those players.”
What sort of captain is she? Fryday tells a lovely story about how McWilliams revealed the news. “In the last camp before the Six Nations started, we had played an internal match on the Saturday and Greg had said that he was going announce the captain on the Sunday. We were in a team meeting and my parents popped up on the screen.
“Greg said, ‘we have our family here, and our captain for the season is going to be Nichola Fryday’. I found out in a room with everyone else. I was a little bit emotional. I loved the way he did it. I loved the fact that he included my family. They thought they were going on a family group WhatsApp call. It was kind of hot messes all round; my mum was crying, I was crying.
“[Her predecessor] Ciara Griffin’s emotion really came to the fore at times and the girls said when I was announced ‘oh God, we have another crier’.”
There were some tough experiences in the Six Nations but through those trials and tribulations the squad showed character. Japan, who are preparing for the World Cup and unbeaten in 2022, will add another element to the Ireland’s benchmarking process under McWilliams, a chance to blend youth and experience.
Fryday will be so important to that process. She is a leader on and off the pitch, developing that aptitude over time. She should be offered one of the IRFU’s professional contracts and after perusing the detail will decide whether to take up Exeter’s offer of playing there for another season, having initially arrived on a short-term contract last November.
Japan remains the primary focus. “It’s the perfect opportunity for these young girls to come in and show what they can do, to learn and thrive. For us it is a huge chance and we are all so excited. Touring Japan will be amazing, I never thought we would get an opportunity like this.”
Tullamore to Tokyo, it’s been some journey so far with the prospect of much more to come.