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From 'girls not allowed' play to international star, with Croke Park glory over Ireland teammate in between

Ireland out-half Nora Stapleton on her unlikely venture to international rugby and how all is going in the Ireland camp.

26 SEPTEMBER 2010. Donegal and Waterford were set to lock horns in the All-Ireland intermediate final.

Nora Stapleton and Niamh Briggs Nora Stapleton (Donegal) and Niamh Briggs (Waterford) in action in the 2010 All-Ireland intermediate final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That year, Nora Stapleton had earned her first cap for the Ireland rugby team, and lined out at the World Cup in England. Upon her return, she had linked back in with the Donegal footballers.

Niamh Briggs — now the Ireland rugby captain — was in the same boat, but she was with Waterford.

It was while they were over in England that both then-dual players received calls, asking if they would return to their respective inter-county set-ups when they landed home.

“We had been training through the summer and Niamh would be like ‘Are you going to Donegal?’ and I’d say ‘Niamh we can’t play county,’” Stapleton tells The42. “She’d say ‘Ah I feel sorry for Waterford, I’d love to be playing for them.’

“We were always chatting like that. Then at the World Cup, we knew that both Donegal and Waterford were on route for qualifying [for the final]. We both got calls to ask us would we come back into the squads after that.

“I had been out a while, but it was because the players had rang me up and asked me. They were short numbers, and short in certain key positions.”

She agreed, and soon after, the Ulster side booked their place in Croke Park.

They were both named on their respective benches that day.

“I got a nod from the manager,” Stapleton recalls.

“When I went down and took off my top, I turned around. I was wearing number 26, Niamh was standing beside me waiting to go on the pitch, wearing number 26 as well.

“It was really weird. I remember just running out think ‘Right, don’t let her have any impact here.’”

Donegal lifted the Mary Quinn Cup that day in 2010, but Stapleton and Briggs have continued to line out alongside each other in the green jersey since.

Stapleton laughs that she pretty much fell into rugby.

As a child, she was an all-rounder but her love was pretty much split between Gaelic football and soccer. A mainstay on the senior inter-county team up until international rugby took over, she studied on a soccer scholarship during her time at UCD.

Nora Stapleton and Niamh Briggs Stapleton and Briggs pictured at the Aon Thought Leadership Series on the topic of wellbeing, which explored the link between employee health and their financial wellbeing. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I was always trying to juggle two sports. Even when I was playing rugby, I was still trying to juggle Gaelic and there was always a crossover.

“There was one year I broke a rib going for Leinster trials and played a Gaelic match four days later in the most amount of pain I’ve ever been in.

“I only did it because I couldn’t tell them that I did it playing rugby, I was nervous about telling them.”

It wasn’t until she was 24 that she first tried her hand at the oval ball. She played at a tag rugby social day, and her potential was obviously noticed from the get-go.

“Somebody asked me if I wanted to play proper rugby. The same as everybody, I was nervous about it, I didn’t know anything about it. I was like ‘Will I go down, won’t I go down? I’m going to be the new person, I won’t know the rules.’

“I just remember doing my first training session and loved it. It was so different to all other sports. You catch a ball, you dodge people and try and score tries. The tackling as well is an enjoyable aspect to it.”

Before that tag rugby event, she had no direct interaction with the sport whatsoever.

She recalls that at the age of ten or 11, her best friend used to head off to play rugby on a Saturday. Watching him, Stapleton was quite jealous. Understandably. She was sports mad.

“It was really strange because we used to always play on the same teams together, growing up in the country, boys and girls played together a lot of the time in Gaelic football, hurling, camogie, soccer.

“I always remember him saying ‘I’ll ask if you can come’ and he came back the following week saying girls weren’t allowed.

“I don’t know if that put me off but I just forgot about rugby then. I would have seen a rugby ball, I would have thrown it to him in the back garden when he was practicing. He went off to secondary school and he was playing rugby there as well.

“It was always something that kind of intrigued me but I was so caught up in Gaelic football and soccer, they took over.”

In terms of the present though, it’s all eyes on the Women’s Rugby World Cup this August on home soil. But more importantly, for Stapleton, it’s about the time between now and then.

Nora Stapleton Stapleton in action for Ireland against France in February. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Off the back of a rather gritty and hard fought Six Nations campaign in which they were pipped to the Grand Slam by England, she feels that her side have a huge amount to build on going forward.

“The Six Nations was successful in that it came down to the wire and the last game. But when we look at each game, I certainly wasn’t happy with the overall performance in each match.

“We know that we still need to improve. More importantly, we know that we can improve.

“It was disappointing [losing out to England]. We made a couple of mistakes and errors, which is really frustrating as a player. It takes you a while to get over it, but it’s all about moving on and what can you do then to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“It’ll really stand to us though. Disappointed in our performance, but perhaps that’s what you need going into World Cup preparation.

“We’re not by any means the finished article, but at the same time, we’re not far off being an absolutely amazing team.

“It’s all about putting in the extra yards in training. That’s really to me, where the difference will be made, and can we, as players step up to that?”

Placed in a group with Japan — who they are currently facing in two uncapped friendlies behind closed doors — Australia and France, Stapleton is wary of the opposition and the challenge ahead, but also relishing the occasion.

Currently training in an extended squad which will be whittled down in July, the 33-year-old is among the group of 13 players who have previous World Cup experience.

Meanwhile, head coach Tom Tierney has made a point throughout the November Test Series and Six Nations campaigns of blooding in new players.

Stapleton welcomes the blend.

“You definitely need the experience. You just need people who have been around a while and have played in high pressurised situations because that’s what it comes down to.

“When you go out and play a match it’s the team that copes with the pressure the best, that’s usually the team that will come out at the end with a win.

Nora Stapleton Ireland kick off their World Cup campaign against Australia on 9 August. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The new girls that have come in, I don’t think it’s a case of youth and experience. It’s a case of the best players on the pitch, and whether that is the girls who have experience who have been playing around, or if someone’s better coming through, they need to be the ones on the pitch.

“It’s a World Cup. It’s not about being nice to players and giving people caps. It’s about getting out of your group, winning the semi-final and winning the final.”

Working as a women and girls rugby development officer with the IRFU, Stapleton is urging people to get out and support the national side in their bid for World Cup glory this summer.

“The support is vital. They’re the 16th player on the pitch. They bring the noise and the colour and the energy. No matter what anybody says, that always adds to the performance as well.

“We want to be winning every match. The fact that it’s at home, it’s absolutely amazing to give our home support the opportunity to see a World Cup on their doorstep and to get out and see the matches, and be part of an occasion that probably won’t come again anytime soon.

“That’s really important for people to remember. The World Cup — it’s every four years, and to have it in Ireland is huge. You just need to get out there and see some of those games.”

Ireland Women’s Rugby Team Head Coach Tom Tierney, captain Niamh Briggs and fly-half Nora Stapleton were speaking at the at the Aon Thought Leadership Series on the topic of wellbeing, which explored the link between employee health and their financial wellbeing.

Aon is a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions, and proud sponsors of the Ireland Women’s Rugby Team and the Women’s Rugby World Cup which kicks off on 9th August. Follow the action on twitter: #JourneyToGreatness

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‘You go from really excited to be leading a World Cup at home to not knowing if you’ll play again’ 

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Emma Duffy

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