In The Lab: After injury pain, a new baby, and a five-year break, Ashleigh Orchard dreams of Paris

The Ireland Sevens player talks about coming back to sport after giving birth and her Olympic ambitions.

WHEN ASHLEIGH ORCHARD discovered she was pregnant around Christmas 2022, she really believed it was the moment to call time on her rugby career.

ashleigh-baxter-scores-a-try Ashleigh Orchard in action for the Ireland Sevens in 2018. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

She had already been through a lengthy lay-off on account of a calf injury which simply would not give way to healing. It kept tearing. And tearing. And tearing again. Playing Sevens rugby for Ireland at the time, she used each impending tournament as a target for her return. But every opportunity seemed to just come with another disruption to her recovery, leading her to think she would never get back on the pitch.

Eventually, she stepped away, but her retirement was never announced. Her coach wanted to leave the door open for a possible Part II. Becoming a mother was exciting news of course, but now she was convinced that her business in rugby would just have to go unfinished.

“I went to Dubai with the development team and I was looking to come back in,” she recalls. “And then I found out I was pregnant. And then I thought it was genuinely over and I was very happy to be having a baby.”

In early May, five-and-a-half years after her last appearance for Ireland, Orchard finally got back on the Sevens circuit when Ireland competed in the regular season finale of the 2024 HSBC SVNS series in Singapore. She got the call inviting her to come back at the start of the year, and decided it was worth one more effort.

“Why not? Don’t have any regrets,” she reasoned at the proposition.

She scored her first try since 2018 in a victory over Spain to put Ireland in their sixth quarter-final of the season. They bowed out to Australia in that match, but Orchard was back. And her squad were in awe of the journey she had come through.

“Having given birth last August, her return to our squad has been inspiring,” team-mate Lucy Mulhall said in a dedication to Orchard on Instagram.

For a lot of Orchard’s return to sport post pregnancy, she had only her instincts to go in. She tried online research but there wasn’t much literature or insight to guide her back to competitive rugby. She didn’t consult with any other female athletes who had navigated this road as a first-time mother either either. Now that she’s on the other side, she has learnings to share from her experience.

lucy-mulhall Ireland Sevens star Lucy Mulhall. Travis Prior / INPHO Travis Prior / INPHO / INPHO

“I didn’t have a very active pregnancy,” she begins. “At the very beginning, before I told anybody, I had quite bad pelvic girdle pain and I remember trying to run water for the Ulster team at one point and I couldn’t lift the water carrier. It freaked me out a bit because I was thinking, ‘Am I going to be unable to walk?’ I was only like eight weeks at this point so then I really reduced any running or gym at that point. I was so freaked out that it was going to get worse.

“But if I had another kid, I would definitely try to be more active. And then when I was coming back, I felt like I had nine months of doing nothing.”

A typical training week for the Ireland Sevens unit consists of light training on a Monday. The workload increases as the week goes on, leading to “pretty tough days” on Thursday and Friday. Orchard travels from her home in Down to be in Dublin for the grind, but the physical toll aside, she’s able to have her daughter Arabella and her husband with her for the Monday and Thursday sessions. They were also in Singapore to see her mark the end of a long road back to elite sport.

Orchard feels good about where she’s at with her progress since linking back in with Ireland. There’s still some work left to do on the strength side of things, but she’s not far off with her fitness. As for her calf injury, the issues of the past haven’t resurfaced. Reflecting on her battle with it, she feels rest was the tonic she needed, and it was only through taking a long break that she could figure that out.

“I went to London to see specialists. At one point, I was going to London every 10 days for injections to try and get back. I felt like I was constantly thinking about it and constantly trying [to get back]. I needed to just step away from that and just let my body get better on its own without any pressure.

“With the Sevens circuit, there’s always another every month or two. And I feel like for two years, I was just constantly like, ‘Oh I’ll be back for the next one.’ And then it would break down and I was nearly pushing too hard for those targets, and not letting it get better.”

“It’s been all good so far.”

2024 has been a prosperous year for women’s rugby in Ireland. The XVs team qualified for the 2025 Rugby World Cup after beating Scotland in the Six Nations to secure a third-place finish in the competition. The Sevens team booked their ticket to the Paris Olympics after a win over Fiji at the World Rugby Seven Series.

Orchard was initially a XVs player when she first entered the international stage of the sport in 2012. She was there for Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam success in 2013, along with their memorable run in the 2014 World Cup where they earned a famous win over New Zealand on the way to finishing fourth.

ashleigh-baxter-and-niamh-briggs-celebrate Orchard celebrating with Niamh Briggs and Nora Stapleton at the 2014 Rugby World Cup. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Recent years have not been kind to the XVs team. Disappointing defeats and disillusion about the future seemed to follow them in every competition. Orchard is happy to see the them making strides again.

“It’s good to see it going on an upward trajectory. That’s a team that’s going to build really well. Hopefully we’ll start to see them chase down the likes of England and France.

“The younger girls in the country are getting so much more better exposure and that’s going to feed.

“I helped coach with the U16 and U18 interprovincial Sevens and I think the difference in the players now coming into the programme [is] their core skills are so much better. It used to be constantly transfer athletes whereas now, you’re seeing an awful lot more kids who’ve played since they were seven coming through.”

Orchard wants a seat on the plane to Paris. That has been a key motivation for her comeback right from the jump. The competition for places on the squad is intense, and only 12 will play at the Olympics. Two more will be involved, ready to swap in if needed. She’s determined to force her way in. Orchard is with Ireland in Madrid this week for the Sevens Series Grand Final before two legs of a Europe Rugby Sevens Championship in Croatia and Germany.

Auditions for those key Olympic spots are still ongoing, and Orchard is putting her hand up for selection, with performances in Madrid likely to have a huge impact on selection.

“It was the Olympic carrot that enticed me back. I’m really not here for anything else and it’s always been a dream of mine.

“I’ll take whatever comes but I would love to go to the Olympics.”

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