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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019

'People said ‘are you mad?'' - Ex-hockey star O'Flynn eyes Olympic 7s

The Cork native is part of the Ireland squad striving to secure the last place in Rio.

THE OLYMPIC GAMES have always been a central part of Audrey O’Flynn’s sporting ambition, beginning well before she became an Ireland hockey international.

The Cork native recalls watching local hero Sonia O’Sullivan battle for Irish pride on the global stage as she grew up. Having taken up hockey at the age of 12, the dream of making the Games herself came into existence.

Audrey O'Flynn O'Flynn is part of the Ireland squad for the Olympics qualifier this weekend. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

O’Flynn won 120 caps for Ireland in hockey before switching into sevens rugby in 2014, and now finds herself on the brink of helping Ireland to earn qualification into the Olympics. The dream is still alive.

“My sporting background would have been always looking at the Olympics,” says O’Flynn.

“With hockey, that’s the main tournament. It’s Olympics, then the World Cup and then the Champion’s Challenge. The Olympics is the be-all and end-all.”

The 29-year-old is part of the Ireland squad that will compete with 15 other nations over the course of this weekend in UCD, with the final spot at the Rio Olympics going to the victors of the tournament.

O’Flynn remains relatively new to sevens – several of the Irish squad are converts from other sports – but she has adapted into a new international sport with aplomb. Four years after coming up short in a bid to make the Olympics in hockey, O’Flynn has another chance.

“Our Olympic qualifiers for hockey were in Belgium in March four years ago, and we lost in the final to Belgium,” says the Mount Mercy College alumnus.

“They had their home crowd, there was about 4,000 at the game, a compact stadium and the noise that they made [was incredible].

“I was playing with a broken jaw at the time, and I didn’t know it. I had my gumshield in. I remember the noise was so loud you couldn’t hear anything. I was playing left-back, and I was trying to shout up to Lisa Jacob, who also played rugby for a bit, who was playing left-mid.

Audrey O'Flynn   O'Flynn scored 30 goals for Ireland. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t hear. The Belgians did have the advantage of the home crowd, with the noise they made, and home advantage for us will be really important for this tournament here.”

There may not be a raucous crowd of 4,000 at the UCD Bowl as Ireland go up against China, Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago in the pool stages today, but they are hoping for vocal support as they attempt to overcome fellow qualification contenders Russia and Spain in the knock-out stages on Sunday.

O’Flynn – formerly of the Hermes hockey club and a star for UCC before that – first joined Ireland’s sevens programme in November of 2014.

As with Ireland captain Lucy Mulhall, it was the IRFU’s Stan McDowell who reached out to O’Flynn – who made her Ireland hockey debut in 2010 - and she didn’t need too much convincing to switch sports.

In fact, the invitation to try sevens rugby couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I was with Irish hockey for years, and I stopped in October 2014. It just got to a stage with hockey where everything had gotten really stale and I wasn’t enjoying it for over a year. I just decided to call it a day and Stan approach me.”

O’Flynn’s brothers and cousins had played rugby in their youth, so she had attended plenty of schools games in Cork and had also played some tag rugby.

Nonetheless, her switch into sevens shocked many of O’Flynn’s friends and hockey team-mates.

“After people had heard that I’d stopped playing hockey, they were just like ‘God, brave decision’ and I was just thinking ‘have I made the right decision?’

Audrey O'Flynn scores a try O'Flynn has made a successful transition. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“People said ‘are you mad?’ Especially because I was playing probably my best hockey when I stopped, but I just felt when I wasn’t enjoying it, there was no point. I really wasn’t enjoying it.

“You had to give up loads for it. I moved up to Dublin from Cork, and the funding for it wasn’t great. You’re pretty much fundraising yourselves; as in, I think the month before I left we had a golf classic to raise funds.

“I had given up so much and getting not as much back from it and, as well, the fact that I wasn’t enjoying it I thought ‘I can’t keep this going.’”

Already an athlete of international class, the switch into sevens revitalised O’Flynn and she was immediately engrossed by her new sport.

Certainly, the sacrifices remain heavy but within the IRFU’s ever-improving sevens programme, the balance between her sport and working life as a teacher has been managed adeptly.

O’Flynn does think she will eventually go back to playing club hockey but for now sevens is everything. A year and a half into her adventure, O’Flynn is still learning with every session.

Have there been struggles with getting to grips with sevens?

“I get a lot of stick because I was asked about this before and I said ‘ball-passing,’” explains O’Flynn with a laugh. “The girls were like ‘what the hell is ball-passing!?’

“But, yeah, passing the ball. I used to throw around the ball with my brothers in the garden but I was always just passing on the right-hand side. I got into bad habits, because I’m told I had a dinosaur hand when I finished off.

Audrey O'Flynn O'Flynn played with the Hermes club in her hockey days. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“I’m actually better with my left now because I didn’t develop any habits passing left to right. I’m lucky the fact that I’m probably the biggest on the squad that contact wasn’t as difficult for me, compared to say Lucy.

“Lucy, she’s half my size but Lucy is able to throw around her weight really well, and it does come down to technique as well with tackling. Nicole [Cronin], she’s only 52 kilos, and she’s able to bring anyone down.

“Obviously, the technique of tackling, and the contact aspect of it, it took a while to get used to it. After my first week of training, they just threw me into the deep end.

“I remember I went to watch the Ireland-South Africa game in the Aviva [in November 2014] afterwards and I was up at the very back of the stand with my brother, and I was just in bits [walking up], ‘I can’t do this!’”

Current director of sevens and women’s rugby Anthony Eddy arrived into his IRFU position soon after O’Flynn had made the switch, meaning she has largely had the benefit of working under one coaching philosophy.

Now, the ambitious Cork woman has amassed the knowledge and rugby intellect to match her longstanding athletic prowess. O’Flynn is part of an Ireland squad that can truly put sevens rugby on the Ireland sporting map by reaching the Olympics.

“It would be superb. When we were watching the men last weekend, we were just thinking ‘God, if they won it, it would do so much for the men’s sevens sport’.

Ireland Women’s Sevens squad:

  • Ashleigh Baxter – Belfast Harlequins / Ulster
  • Niamh Briggs – UL Bohemians / Munster
  • Nicole Cronin – Shannon / Munster
  • Aoife Doyle – Shannon / Munster
  • Louise Galvin – UL Bohemians / Munster
  • Kim Flood – Railway Union / Leinster
  • Stacey Flood – Railway Union / Leinster
  • Alison Miller – Portlaoise / Connacht
  • Lucy Mulhall – Rathdrum / Leinster (captain)
  • Amee Leigh Murphy-Crowe – Railway Union / Munster
  • Audrey O’Flynn – Talent ID Programme
  • Megan Williams – St. Mary’s College RFC

Ireland fixtures:

Ireland v Trinidad and Tobago
UCD Bowl, Saturday 25 June, 12.43pm

Ireland v Portugal
UCD Bowl, Saturday 25 June, 3.40pm

Ireland v China
UCD Bowl, Saturday 25 June, 6.48pm

Sunday 26 June

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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