With just 10 caps, Ireland's most experienced back is coming 'full circle' after debut at 18

Aoife Doyle: ‘You can feel like it’s the beginning of something new and something special as well.’

Aoife Doyle pictured in training in Japan this week.
Aoife Doyle pictured in training in Japan this week.
Image: ©IRFU/Ryan Bailey

A RENDITION OF ‘Happy Birthday’ can be vaguely heard in the background of the Ireland women’s rugby team announcement press conference from Japan, giving Greg McWilliams a laugh.

The head coach explains that the squad have sang it enthusiastically in the hotel over the past few nights, and then been given ice cream by the staff.

Aoife Doyle is next in line for interview, and naturally, it’s the first topic of conversation.

“It has been a bluff the last three nights and then today we actually had a real birthday, so it’s kind of like the boy who cried wolf,” she laughs, explaining how it’s Ailsa Hughes’ breithlá today, and the cake should put an end to it.

For now, anyway.

It’s an anecdote which perfectly epitomises the excitement and buzz among this new-look squad ahead of Saturday’s historic first Test against the Sakura Fifteen at the Ecopa Stadium, Shizuoka [KO 11am Irish time, live on TG4].

“We’re so used to coming in on a Friday and just having until Sunday together,” Limerick star Doyle, who’s named to start on the wing, explains.

“I think the idea of spending three whole weeks together, there has been a buzz. It has been really exciting, because we’ve had so much time together to grow off the pitch and to bond. Especially with so many new girls coming in. There are huge age gaps in the squad, which has made it more enjoyable because there is so much going on around you. So many conversations are happening, people are forming new friendships, new relationships. The buzz on camera is the same off camera, so it has been really nice.”

Doyle, best known for her exploits with the Sevens through the years, has just 10 caps to her name, but, quite incredibly, is one of the most experienced backs in Saturday’s XV.

(She’s not the most-capped, though: Hughes and Enya Breen both have 14, but Doyle has been around quite some time between both set-ups.)

Asked if she’d ever envisaged that, the 27-year-old grins:

No, I certainly didn’t. Although I’ve been around for years, I obviously went in between the two programmes… I’m a veteran, but in terms of caps, I’m definitely not.”

She made her debut almost 10 years ago now, at the tender age of 18, so can resonate with how the youngsters and new caps are feeling in the build-up to Saturday.

Doyle is conscious, too, to return the favour of how others welcomed her early on, feeling the extra responsibility on senior players to help ease the fresh faces in.

“It feels like full circle for me, because although I was only 18, it still kind of feels like yesterday sometimes.

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“When I first came in, I was very young. I didn’t drive, so for me it was those players who were texting me, asking me did I need lifts to training, did I need lifts home from training.

Obviously for me Niamh Briggs was a role model when I began playing and she was the full-back when I was the winger at the time. We had a really good relationship on the pitch and off the pitch. As she transformed to a coaching role with me now, that’s something I’d like to do with the younger girls coming in as well.

“I know exactly how they’re feeling. I know exactly how they would have been feeling the first week coming into this environment. For some of the senior girls, our main aim was to make it the most welcoming and relaxed environment for them. Because they need to feel like they can ask us questions whenever they need to and that they’re supported going out on Saturday.” 

Training has been tough, she stresses as they move through the gears, adjusting to “definitely some of the hardest conditions I’ve ever played in”.

But McWillams’ side are ready for showtime, after a string of positive developments off the pitch and progressive steps for Irish women’s rugby, and it’s now time to do their talking on the pitch.

“You can just feel it change,” Doyle concludes. “You can feel like it’s the beginning of something new and something special as well.

“I just think with the opportunity of a summer tour, usually we have so many small opportunities to play throughout the year because we have Six Nations and then maybe two November internationals.

“This is three weeks of bonding, growth, training together while also being able to blood new people who have put in the hard work and are ready for their opportunity. It’s nice that we have extra windows for games throughout the year as well.”

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Emma Duffy

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