Basketball’s loss is rugby’s gain as Lauren Delany makes up for lost time

Winger only took up the game at 25 and was spotted while playing in England

Rugby has profited handsomely from the financial mismanagement of basketball in Ireland.

"I went to the Irish-speaking school, Coláiste Íosagáin in Stillorgan, and they had a really good basketball culture," explains Lauren Delany, the 31-year-old winger who is expected to win a 14th cap against France at Donnybrook on Saturday. "I think we won 10 All-Ireland medals over the years with the coach there, Marie O'Toole, and I absolutely loved it.

“I am not a big NBA or WNBA fan, it was more our bubble in Coláiste Íosagáin. It’s always great to talk about the basketball days with Lindsay Peat and Aoife McDermott.”

Offloading is not an issue for this Ireland team, not with three ex-international basketballers in the starting XV.

“When I got to [Ireland] under-23s, unfortunately, all the funding for the women’s and men’s senior teams got cut, so that avenue or that journey wasn’t there anymore,” Delany continues. “After I did my undergraduate university degree in Dublin I then decided the best route for my professional career was to move over to England to do my master’s. And basketball became the lesser priority in my life in comparison to my nutrition career.”

These days Delany is fully immersed in professional rugby as the Leeds Rhinos performance nutritionist, coupled with Sale Sharks desire to promote the women’s team that she regularly features on in the Premier 15s, which is the elite club competition in the world.

“When the opportunity with rugby came up I decided that was an amazing new journey to go on but, yeah, I still definitely miss the basketball and I still talk about it quite a lot with Lindsay.”

In 2011 Basketball Ireland were subjected to a Gardaí investigation for the “misappropriation” of up to €1.5 million in grants between 1999 and 2006.

The Community Hoops Programme was supposed to purchase and install over 1,700 outdoor hoops in parks, playgrounds, schools and estates across Ireland. Only €255,000 was spent on 345 units.

Basketball – despite its universal appeal – has struggled to revive itself in Ireland since a five-year ban on applying for capital funding was announced in March 2013.

The talent had to go somewhere.

"It could have been a very different career, but I don't think I'd be the rugby player that I am here today without those years playing basketball," says Delany, who was spotted by Adam Griggs, the current Ireland head coach, at a talent identification trial in England three years ago. She made her debut against the USA in November 2018 alongside a 16-year-old named Béibhinn Parsons.

“It is a few years ago now and a few years in the age difference too! It’s been great to watch her grow over the years and she has been an inspiration to me in terms of how she has developed.

“It has definitely spurred me at different points to look at a couple of different elements of my game as well. We’ve definitely grown in slightly different ways. We started off playing rugby in different situations as well but I’d like to think we’ve both flourished on the pitch in recent years.”

Parsons is a thoroughbred, exposed to rugby as a young girl, yet Delany’s pace offers a slightly reduced threat when attacking off her wing.

“I played basketball for 15 years, played underage for Ireland as well and I moved to Milton Keynes for a new job with British badminton. There was no basketball there so I decided to go with a friend from work to our local rugby club and tried it for the first time when I was 25.

“When I moved to Manchester, I joined a rugby club but I wanted to make new friends so I also joined the local GAA club and played that for a while until rugby became more serious for me and I had to focus all my time on it.”

So far so good. Ironically, Delany, who was born and raised in south Dublin, was spotted under the IQ (Irish qualified) system in the UK.

“I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without that IQ system, so I massively recognise the importance and the value that it brings. It gives access to thousands of young girls and rugby players who could potentially qualify for the Irish system.

“It opens up a whole heap of opportunities. The Premier 15s allows players to develop while also still having that connection with the Irish set-up as well [via the IQ]. So, yeah, it is massively valuable and all credit to them for having that really good system, and I definitely owe my international career to them.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent