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Swapping basketball for rugby and drawing inspiration from Special Olympics to pursue nursing

Aoife McDermott has been named to start in Ireland’s last Six Nations game of the 2018 campaign.

THE IRELAND WOMEN’S rugby team is no stranger to players coming in from other sports.

Aoife McDermott with Emma Wassell Aoife McDermott. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The current crop contains athletes like Lindsay Peat, who excelled in at least three different disciplines before taking up rugby.

Along with playing basketball and football for Ireland, she was also a vital cog in the Dublin Ladies’ team that captured the senior All-Ireland title in 2010.

Out-half Niamh Briggs also has GAA links, having previously played for the Waterford footballers, while the recently retired Sophie Spence came from a netball background before turning her attention to the oval ball.

The list goes on, and Sligo native and second row Aoife McDermott is another name we can add to that group.

Basketball was her sport of choice from the age of 12, and along with representing Ireland at every level, she also won multiple All-Ireland titles.

She later attended college in UL where she came to understand rugby a little better and her time at the Limerick institution coincided with the Ireland Women’s rugby team winning a Grand Slam in 2013.

Over time, she found herself gravitating more and more towards the sport.

“I kind of felt I had achieved as much and gone as far as I could with basketball and I had seen other players making the transition from basketball [to rugby] such as Lindsay Peat and Louise Galvin.

Aoife McDermott Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I kind of wanted a new challenge and wanted to see if I could I take up a new sport and see how far I could go with it, I suppose that was the drive and I loved the idea of trying to make an Irish team with rugby and the professionalism and elitism that comes with being a rugby player.

“It all kind of attracted me to the game really.”

McDermott made the transition to rugby 18 months ago but has already made her Six Nations debut, after lining out in the victory over Wales earlier in the campaign.

Her development was undoubtedly swift but she had coaches and mentors who took her ‘under their wings’ and put her through some extra sessions to help her along the way.

She also studied clips of rugby matches to improve her understanding of the game, and continues to do so today.

“When I started playing with Railway [Union], I was put onto the AIL team straight away and on the starting 15. As I started playing and breaking the rules, that’s how I started learning them,” says McDermott.

Although the physicality element was something she had to adjust to, McDermott found that a lot of her basketball skills were transferable into her new sport and often used her ‘basketball mind’ to make sense of some of the rugby plays.

Aoife McDermott and Orla Fitzsimons during the national anthem McDermott standing alongside Orla Fitzsimons during the national anthem ahead of Ireland's Six Nations tie against Wales. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

She took to the handling skills quickly enough, but needed to spend more time working on other technical aspects of the game like rucking and tackling.

“Basketball’s very structured in that you run a particular offense almost every time up the floor. So, that made understanding how a lineout works and why you would do certain movements and dummies and decoys and things a lot easier for me.

“I think I still have quite a basketball mind that I relate everything back to it so that I can understand it. Even in terms of running lineouts and set-plays and set-attacks that we try and run, that’s all very similar to basketball,” she explains.

McDermott was initially named among the replacements ahead of the Six Nations clash against Wales, but after Nichola Fryday was ruled out through illness, McDermott’s services were called upon.

However, she didn’t have long to let any pre-match nerves fester.

“Unfortunately, Nicola Fryday fell ill and Sunday morning, I was told about two or three hours before the match started that I was going to be starting,” she explains.

“Not a huge amount of time to get too nervous about it, which in hindsight was probably the best way to do it.

“Adam was brilliant, he just said, ‘go in and do your job, don’t worry about calling lineouts, don’t worry about anything else, just get in and be physical and do what we want you to do.’”

Away from the pitch, McDermott is a trained special needs nurse and is currently working in the area of clinical research at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, having previously worked with the LauraLynn Children’s Hospice.

The flag comes down at the closing ceremony An image from the closing ceremony of the Special Olympics in Ireland in 2003. Source: INPHO

The second row player was first inspired to pursue the nursing profession after witnessing the Special Olympics Games that were held in Ireland back in 2003.

“I remember the Special Olympics Games on in Ireland and I just thought the idea of sports and nursing was the two dream combinations. Obviously when I got into nursing, it’s a lot more medical side to it but I think they’re an amazing group in society.

I think they can offer us a lot and they can teach us a lot with their compassion and their kindness and their trust. I just really like working with them.”

She added:

“I think they can be a little bit of a forgotten part of the population, especially when they leave school at 18 and there’s not an awful lot of day services available. With cutbacks and that, they don’t have an awful lot of opportunities to get out and meet people.

“There’s always more we can do to try and make life a little bit better for them.”

McDermott was first added to the Ireland squad last November, which was when she made the switch into research work. She still does some nursing, but after realising that some parts of her job wouldn’t be conducive to her training schedule, she knew she needed to make a change.

“I absolutely loved working in LauraLynn but working nights and weekends, it’s very hard to manage and balance both and commit to both as fully as I’d like to.

To be fair, LauraLynn were brilliant but you’d be coming off a night shift and trying to play a match that afternoon and just there’s no way that you can be at your best and try and perform to the best that you want to.”

McDermott has been named to start in Ireland’s last Six Nations game later this evening, when they take on reigning champions England at the Ricoh Arena [KO 5.30pm, RTÉ2].

After suffering defeat to France last weekend, England will not be able to defend their Grand Slam title. They can still retain the Six Nations championship with a victory over Ireland, although they also need the undefeated France to lose out to Wales in order for that to happen.

McDermott is steeled for the task that lies ahead and is thriving in her new sport after taking it up just 18 months ago. She’s made an incredible transition to rugby, just like the many other Irish women who have preceded her.

“I think we’re under no illusions it’s going to be a tough day at the office but if we can just get back to putting in a solid performance and do what we can do and show the style of rugby that we’re trying to play and work hard.

You never know what might happen.”

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