Twist of fate led Claire Molloy to a rugby career with Ireland

Galway woman switched from GAA to rugby due to pursuing her medical studies in Cardiff

Ireland’s Claire Molloy in action against England at Belfield: “We have a lot of pride in the green shirt.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland’s Claire Molloy in action against England at Belfield: “We have a lot of pride in the green shirt.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Dr Claire Molloy blames her current existence on mathematics. It was 2005 and life was moving along just fine for the teenage corner back as Galway returned to the All-Ireland football final.

Rugby was something she grew up watching male classmates do at The Jes. The GAA was her tribe.

“It was my Leaving Cert’s fault! Not getting an A1 in honours Maths. I had applied for medicine in Ireland but the paper didn’t quite go my way.

“I applied for Cardiff [University] as a back-up plan.”

The back-up plan wasn’t supposed to lead to an eight-year residency in Ireland’s number seven jersey.

“I couldn’t find any women’s football clubs over in Cardiff but having gone to Coláiste Iognáid, The Jes, I used to always go watch the boys play in the Connacht Junior and Senior Cups so I said, ‘Sure I’m in Wales I may as well go play rugby’.

“First day training with the university team I remember being really disappointed when told I was a flanker. Because I thought I was fast.”

It was obvious to anyone who witnessed Ireland’s Grand Slam in 2013, the marvellous journey to a World Cup semi-final a year later and retention of the Six Nations title in 2015 that she is no ordinary openside.

Molloy is the annoying pebble in every opposition’s shoe. Throughout these historic days, while others have come and gone, she has been an essential constant presence.  

“One of the girls got me to play for Cardiff Quins so my first ever run out in club rugby was the Welsh cup final. We won,” she recalls.

That was the start of it, or the end of a career living in the shadow of the Cork team she faced on her solitary visit to Croke Park.

“I was the youngest member of the Galway team and had underperformed in the semi-final so got myself dropped for the final,” Molloy remembers.

“I came off the bench to mark Valerie Mulcahy, the rising star of Cork football at the time. She got a penalty, can’t remember if it was off me, but we knew it was going against us.

“After, I was called in for a drug test along with Briege Corkery. It’s mad to think how many All-Irelands Briege has won between the two codes since.”

Seventeen.  

Dominant force

“Just the way they played,” Molloy continues. “They had Angela Walsh, who marked Niamh Fahey out of the final. Nobody had seen that before. Niamh was a fantastic footballer and at her peak.”

Fahey, through her exploits for Arsenal and Chelsea, along with Corkery, Walsh and Mulcahy have become household names in Irish sport but it took way longer than it should have.

Molloy understands why that was so as well as anyone.

“There is increased recognition for their achievements over the past ten years. It’s progress.”

Progress that has taken time. In rugby it needed Fiona Coghlan’s Grand Slam winners to beat New Zealand at the World Cup before the IRFU accepted that their investment must equal the endeavour.   

“It did take a Grand Slam, yeah, but Fi Coghlan always said to us, ‘Until we win something they are not going to notice’. That Grand Slam was the beginning of it. I remember being in the airport with Larissa Muldoon and we saw the front of The Irish Times, and we were on it!

“That was the start of it. Now, I get to experience going through the airport and the general public would recognise the kit as being part of the IRFU but before the Grand Slam the question was, ‘Are you supporters?’ Since the Grand Slam it was, ‘Oh, were you playing?’ 

“The questions have changed, which shows how much we have come on, but you have to have success to get recognition.”

Molloy has suffered for the cause. More than most. There was an insane few years when she juggled medical studies (in the same class as Jamie Roberts) and captaining the Ireland Sevens all over the globe while playing 15s for Bristol RFC and Ireland.  

“God yeah, 2013 I was in my final year of Med school and I remember being out of the country [UK] every weekend from January until the middle of April. I had my finals either side of the Italy match, our last game.”

A bitterly cold St Patrick’s Day in a small town outside Milan when she played through hypothermia.

Horrendous game

“The rugby was so slow and it came down to kicks, which is unlike us, but the Italians made us grind it out. I remember seeing Siobhán Fleming warming up on the sideline as I was frozen to the side of a scrum. But I looked at Gemma Crowley, our manager, and said: ‘NO! Don’t take me off!’

“I cramped in the last ten minutes every time I jumped in the lineout, both my calves as I left the ground and then having to stretch them as I landed just to run on.

“When the final whistle blew I was so relieved that I cried. A wave of exhaustion hit me. I was so cold. Ross O’Callaghan put loads of layers on me and had me running up and down the 22 so I could function enough to get my medal.

“In the changing rooms the showers weren’t warm so they whisked me off to the team hotel.

“I don’t think textbook-wise it was full-on hypothermia. I was a little bit delirious but no memory impairment.”

This was how Dr Molloy prepared for the most demanding exams of her life.  

“The day before we flew to Italy I had two written finals,” she laughs now.  “I spent most of the time revising for my practical exam. All the girls were given a medical history so they could help me.”

Roberts, who had also come off a winning Six Nations campaign, was welcomed by a strange sight in the exam hall.  

“Half my face grazed off me. You can’t really cover that up. I was sitting beside Jamie Roberts, we did all our exams together that year because we both had to do them as early as possible as I had to fly out to Hong Kong with the Sevens and he had the Lions.

“He was sitting beside a very beaten up girl.”  

Fully committed

“I had a chat with the Deanery and told them I’ll be out of the country for 26 to 28 weekends. We negotiated a working week that works with rugby. Since August I’ve been on a 60 per cent rota, a six month placement over 12 months, working Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday with a certain amount of ‘on call’ days so financially I can keep going.

“There is a reason why people in my profession don’t play team sports. To be honest, I don’t know how people have children and do the work we do at times.”

The Scotland game this Friday at Broadwood Stadium, a return to where Ireland clinched the 2015 championship, provides welcome relief. It’s framed as a blank canvass after a deeply concerning November when three home defeats to the best female rugby teams in the world – England (10-12), Canada (7-48) and the Black Ferns (8-38) – showed just how tough the road ahead will be.

Molloy grasps at the final moments against New Zealand when a young UCD crowd were finally allowed to descend into near hysterics.

“We came in after the last try they scored and asked ourselves: ‘how do you want to remember the end of this November series? In these five minutes you get to decide that.’ We rose our standards and got a score. That showed a resilience exists in the girls.

“That made me very happy to be involved with this bunch. We showed the crowd that came out to watch what we can do and that we have a lot of pride in the green shirt.”

*Friday 3rd February 2017: Scotland Women v Ireland Women, 6.35pm, Broadwood Stadium, Glasgow (Live on RTÉ). 

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