Lucy Mulhall’s roundabout journey to Ireland captaincy
The Ireland Sevens skipper came into the game in a curious way via the avenue of GAA
Ireland’s Lucy Mulhall has taken a roundabout way to the women’s sevens rugby World Series. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Lucy Mulhall has taken a road less travelled from the family farm in Crossbridge, Tinahely in Wicklow to Sydney, Australia; a serendipitous journey in which she has crossed hemispheres and sporting codes with equal facility and one whose origins can be traced to a throwaway observation in a Women’s All-Ireland football junior final programme.
Late Thursday night and into the small hours of Friday morning, Irish time, she led the Ireland Women’s Sevens rugby team, as she has done since 2015, in the second tournament of the elite World Series circuit, the team losing two of three matches but still qualifiyingfor the quarter-finals where they will face New Zealand on Saturday night (11.28pm). They are looking to improve upon a disappointing ninth place finish in Dubai, the opening leg of the competition.
The 24-year-old discovered her sporting nirvana in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Growing up, when her childhood wasn’t dominated by farm chores, she eagerly embraced sport; she chose Gaelic football, camogie and athletics, products of the hinterland. There was also a bit of time devoted to Irish dancing and music.
The second eldest of five children, two girls Emily and Lucy, and three boys Joseph, Noel and Kevin, she enjoyed the cocoon of a close-knit family, once they had got over the sibling rivalries of youth. Emily a year and a half older remains her best friend and biggest advocate, although that’s a keenly contested role within the family.
Her parents, Pat and Helen, encouraged their children to pursue a broad range of interests, while directly fostering a love of sport, through their own identities. Helen was involved in setting up the Women’s GAA club in Tinahely, Coolkenno and played county football for Wicklow while Pat, who also played Gaelic football, won a European Championships in Tug o’ war. Lucy smiled: “My uncle, Christy won a World Championship,” in the same discipline.
In 2011, Lucy Mulhall, captained Wicklow to the Women’s All Ireland Junior Football title. Studying Science at Trinity College, she received an email from former European Cup winner with Ulster (1999) and now assistant coach to the Ireland Women’s Sevens team, Stanley McDowell, wondering if she’d be interested in giving Sevens a try; it was as part of an IRFU funded Talent ID programme to trawl other sports, seeking out talented athletes.
She was intrigued as to why she had been singled out. “There was a questionnaire in the programme of some match. I was captain at the time, and one of the questions on it was ‘your favourite sporting moment?’
“I had watched the Ireland Women’s Rugby Grand Slam in 2013 and also the documentary on RTÉ afterwards. It really caught my imagination. I ended up putting that down as my favourite moment. Stan saw this and thought this girl may be open to the possibility of playing rugby.
“I had heard of Laura Lee Walsh another Gaelic footballer coming to play so I got on You Tube and watched an Ireland-England match. My understanding was very vague. Strangely it was the hard work that attracted me. I thought it was an unforgiving game where you make a mistake and it cost you points. At the same time it was like a mess on the field because I didn’t understand too much.
“As regards rules and the finer points of the game I hadn’t a clue but I liked the entertainment factor. We would have always watched that but if there was a GAA and a rugby match on at the same time in the house, we would watch the GAA because it is what we grew up with. We were massive sports fans. When the Olympics were on we would watch all day. We’d watch World Cup or Champions League games in soccer.”
Sevens was a little more digestible for a novice than the 15-a-side game but it still represented a culture shock. Mulhall though loved the challenge, eagerly lapping up the education process, new skill sets, passing the ball backwards and the contact, which she relished.
She admitted: “When you come into a professional level of sport it is quite different to playing Gaelic football at home. There is a commitment every single day. You are not just turning up to practice but to get something out of every single session. That’s what I loved straight away and the bubble of it; it is a bubble they way that we train every day as a group.
“It took me months to get my brain up to scratch with what was going on around me. I came from a sport where I started playing at five years old and while you always had stuff to learn in GAA at the same time you were comfortable with a certain level of skill. After that you are pushing yourself to get better and better but with rugby I was completely out of my comfort zone.
“For the first couple of months I was wondering whether I was going to be any good at rugby. Am I going to be able to pick up this sport? It was a risk.” Others saw in Mulhall what might not have been immediately evident to her to the point where Anthony Eddy, the IRFU’s director of Women’s and Sevens made her captain.
She recalled: “It’s beyond my wildest dreams. The whole rugby thing was beyond my wildest dreams and then what I started that I set myself goals but this (the captaincy) never came into my mind. It’s a huge honour.
“You have to lead by example and it becomes less about what you are saying. It helped my game because it pushed me to look at all those small little things off the field. We learned and grew together and have so many leaders on the field now.
“It’s important to leave it open and let us be a team of leaders. It’s not like 15s where you do need people calling certain moves. There are seven people (on the team) and we all have to be able to make decisions.”
Away from tournaments the Ireland Women’s Sevens team train Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, from 1.0-7.0pm. It incorporates meetings, video analysis, gym and pitch sessions and physiotherapy. Wednesday is theoretically a day off but players come in for sports massages and sneak in a few extras be it fitness or gym.
Her mornings are occupied too. Mulhall is in third year of a four year degree in UCD on an Ad Astra scholarship, studying Science and Physiology. She did the first two in Trinity College before switching, took a couple of years out including completing a college course in Blackrock. She has an idea or two but nothing concrete in terms of a career; at present her passion for Sevens is all consuming.
When she first started playing Sevens her local club, Rathdrum rang and asked if she’d be interested in playing 15-a-side. She’s managed two games, one at outhalf, one at centre. “I love the challenge of it because it’s such a technical game but you’d have to do your homework. I hope there comes a point when I can give that time to learning the 15s game.
“At the moment Sevens is my top priority. I have plenty to work on at Sevens and lots of improvements to make but 15s is something I’d like to play. The two sports complement each other, tackle, catch and pass but at the same time they are so different. In 15s you can plan what your next phase is, Sevens you don’t have the time to plan.”
There were elements of her Gaelic football background that translated to Sevens rugby, the awareness to find space, stepping players and innate athleticism but she had to develop core strength and power to cope with the demands of contact in rugby, where the game is more explosive, delivered in short bursts.
The success of the women’s 15-a-side team earned them a deserved profile in Irish sport and Mulhall concedes that unless the Sevens team can deliver the same achievements measured by silverware, the perception will be that it is a niche sport. “I think the Olympics did a lot for Sevens around the world. It is going to take us doing well in a World Cup Finals (San Francisco in July), making a semi-final in a World Series (event), to get that recognition.
“It’s going to take the men qualifying for the (World Series) circuit. It all comes down to exposure. The Women’s 15s in Ireland was not heard at all, then the girls went on and won the Grand Slam; they have done so much for 15s in the country.
“At the moment no young girls at six or seven years old are looking up and saying ‘I want to play Sevens rugby.’ It’s not happening. That’s what is so important for us and so exciting for me to be part of something that can actually change the future of Sevens rugby in Ireland because if we start getting more success it’ll bring exposure to the game.
“If the World Cup goes well or we play in the Olympics in Tokyo it will change the future of Sevens rugby in Ireland. Sevens is not going to appeal to everyone and that’s understandable but with (the right) exposure is can broaden that appeal.”
The appointment of the Blitzbokke’s Allan Temple Jones to oversee the strength and conditioning of the Ireland Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams is something that the players have singled out as crucial to their development.
A ninth place finish in Dubai was hugely disappointing but despite losing narrowly to Canada and Russia, both of whom they have never beaten, in Sydney, they beat Fiji and qualified for a tilt New Zealand; the latter won all three matches. Mulhall admitted: “This is our third year on the circuit and we need to start making quarter-finals and semi-finals on a regular basis, challenging the top six teams.”
Results: Ireland 12 Canada 24; Ireland 19 Russia 7; Ireland 17 Fiji 14.
Friday: Ireland v New Zealand (11.28pm, Irish time).