Linda Djougang: ‘I love rugby so much because when I am out there I can just be me’
From frontline of the pandemic to the Ireland frontrow, the Ireland tighthead is powering on
Linda Djougang: “We are still learning. Everybody, even myself, I am still learning to adapt to the Irish culture. Every single day I learn something new.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Djougang grew up believing that it takes a village to raise a child. Because she was that child. On arrival in Ireland this was not initially the case. On day one in her father’s family home, she was excited to meet the neighbours.
“My Dad was like, ‘No, you can’t play with the neighbours, this is not Cameroon, this isn’t how life works here’” she wrote last year.
So she figured out how life works here. The only black girl in an all-white primary school, her intellect and character ensured that the 33 bus stopped outside Trinity College.
Nursing became her calling. The Irish rugby team became her tribe. Lindsay Peat and Old Belvedere muscled into her life. All that raw power piqued Leinster’s interest. A couple of years after her first game of tag she had become Ireland’s tighthead prop.
Turns out you can create and maintain two careers at the same time. But only if you have the will of a child uprooted from one radically different culture to another before graduating from a university that rarely produces normal people.
Tallaght Hospital, on the Covid ward and intensive care unit, chiselled a crater in her life these past 12 months.
“There is still Covid around. It is still happening. I have been working in ICU and in theatre, where emergency surgeries are usually Covid patients. You remember not to take life for granted. It has been the most challenging year for me but I think that is the same for all of us.”
It has been different for Djougang. Most people only have to look after their own family whereas she cares for the patients and loved ones who are not allowed stand vigil. She might be the soothing voice on the other end of the line. She might be holding the iPad so people can say goodbye to a dying parent.
“It means that we become so much more important because the family depends on us. You kind of have to play both roles. You kind of have to become the advocate for the patient and for the family. With all the visiting gone, you have to find a way for them to communicate with the patient. You have to give the family feedback as well, because they cannot be there.
“You become so close to your work because you have seen so much. It means you are eager to go back and help out.”
She loves her job but not in an all-consuming way.
“I switch off by going to training. Just focus on scrummaging, on playing rugby. In some ways I feel like I am living two lives, if that makes sense.”
She carries lived experiences, mainly the ability to cope under enormous strain, into her scrummaging.
“I became so much more aware of my environment. It is just little skills you think you wouldn’t need but, with the whole situation around Covid you learn them, and you become so much better at the skills that you use all the time. So you use them in rugby.
“I am a tighthead. Everything goes through me. I have to be able to feel it and see what is going on and I have to communicate to the other seven players in our pack: ‘Here, this is what we have to do’. ‘This is not working’. ‘This is working, let’s keep doing this’.”
She might become the dominant prop that French and English scrum doctors are unable to vaccinate against.
Djougang is not just a nurse, not just an athlete; she is a multi-layered Dubliner, one who wrote an essay about the Black Lives Matter movement, when she stole a line off Denise Chaila because it is also her truth.
“Caoimhe, Saoirse, Aoife. I will pronounce your name right but please pronounce my name too. I go home and I practice your name. I don’t tell you that I’ll go home and practice your name, but God damn, I do it.”
She declines the offer to avoid speaking about racism in Ireland.
“I don’t mind. It is a topic that people avoid speaking about but it is something we should feel comfortable talking about.
“I definitely think Black Lives Matter opened up the opportunity to talk about it. That was important. I feel like we are definitely getting there and it should not be something that we avoid or are scared about. It is supposed to be natural. We are all in a learning curve.”
Learning how to become a multicultural society?
“We are still learning. Everybody, even myself, I am still learning to adapt to the Irish culture. Every single day I learn something new. We are all learning about each other every single day.
“We should never feel uncomfortable to discuss it. We should be proud that there are so many different cultures in Ireland. It’s what makes Ireland a better country.
“In nursing we have so many people from different backgrounds. It’s amazing to have somebody from a different background looking after you, and looking after you the same way as an Irish person would. That for me is special.
“We are all human,” her usual lilt crumbles into giggles. “The only thing that is different is the melanin in our skin that makes us a little bit darker. We share the same DNA. We are all human, our blood is red.”
Linda Djougang is 24 now. On this Saturday afternoon she wins her 11th cap for Ireland. Another match live on RTÉ television. Another shift alongside Peat, the only mother in camp.
“Lindsay is a phenomenal player and person, inside and out. We all look up to her. She is a fighter. She never backs down. She has been leading us throughout my Ireland rugby career.
“Having her on my team makes me want to work even harder.”
This is some of Djougang’s story. You might be the class-mate who told a scared child who could only speak French that “black people don’t get to play with the white ball.” You might be the security guard following her around the shopping centre. Or a class-mate in Trinity or a team-mate in the Ireland squad, inspired by the way she keeps smiling through these impossibly long days.
“The IRFU have been so supportive, like booking taxis to get me to training, but I really need to do my driving test and get my licence. Life would be far less stressful if I was driving.”
“That would work! Or somebody could just get me a date for my driving test. I am ready.”
What about hill starts?
“Yes!” she snaps while laughing. “I am a good driver.”
Refusing to slide into self promotion, the young lady forced to grow up long before a child should have to, has politely told her story to anyone willing to listen. But it keeps changing, keeps growing a new stem.
This week she is a staff nurse trying to stay in rugby mode. She works, she trains, she sleeps in unequal measure.
“When I am in hospital I am 100 per cent a nurse. I just try to eat healthy, stay hydrated and focus on what I need to do. Obviously I think about rugby.
“When I am on the pitch I am not a nurse. It is two different worlds.”
Come 2.15pm this afternoon her mood will alter dramatically as she unceremoniously removes any awkward French bodies blocking the silver service afforded scrumhalf Kathryn Dane during last week’s 45-0 victory over Wales.
“I love rugby so much because when I am out there I can just be me. Not somebody else. I am just a rugby player.
“But, I have to say, Tallaght has been so supportive of me with getting time off throughout my career, because it is something that I do worry about – obviously we are not professionals.”
There’s the word of the week. Djougang would like to be a professional athlete but she already has a career. It presents a fascinating juxtaposition.
England’s Emily Scarratt and her team-mates are on contracts worth up to €35,000 annually, which is not enough to feed and house a family living in Dublin.
“It is not great money but it is something,” she countered. “You really think about it when a game finishes and you do not have the time to recover like the English girls. We are already going: ‘okay, what’s next?’”
Next tends to be a 13-hour shift.
“Time is key when you have other jobs on top of what you do. You are trying to maximise the 24 hours you have in a day.
“But I keep loving rugby because I also have a job I love so much. That keeps me stable. I can switch off from rugby and focus on my nursing and I can switch off from nursing and focus on my rugby.
“I am able to give 100 per cent to each. I would worry if I only played rugby that I would lose the skills that I have right now.”
Is it possible to be best she can possibly be in both careers at the same time?
“It is definitely possible. Professionalism is a mindset. We are all striving to become better players every single day and we do have the [training] resources available to us. We have the equipment. We have the potential. We have a world-class coaching team. We are all confident we can get to where we want to go.
“If you really want something it is possible. Obviously in life there will be obstacles.”
Rugby leans into semi-professionalism at next year’s World Cup in New Zealand before a global tournament – The WXV – starts in 2023 with the guarantee of eight Test matches every season.
Will it be possible then?
“If rugby becomes that good that we have to play constantly you have to think outside the box career-wise, because what career allows you to do that?
“I am a full-time staff nurse so it is going to be very hard, but there is a way around everything. I could go part-time. I know they would support that.
“It is going to be challenging but it is always challenging.”