True Great

'It was instantly obvious to me that she was a player ahead of her time'

Claire Molloy made a huge impact for Ireland over the course of 74 caps.

Claire Molloy

IT WAS FAR from a fitting end for a player of her calibre and yet, even as Ireland’s World Cup hopes died, Claire Molloy was able to show some of the class that has made her one of this country’s greatest-ever rugby players.

Ireland’s defeat to Scotland in September confirmed that they won’t be at the World Cup in New Zealand next year and it also proved to be Molloy’s last appearance for Ireland. 

On her 74th and final cap, Molloy made three turnovers in the space of 20 minutes off the bench as she desperately fought to keep the Scots at bay. In that sense, she at least managed to sign off in the way she made her name in international rugby – by being an absolute menace to the opposition.

33-year-old Molloy’s retirement announcement came two days later and, characteristically, it was short and sweet. Anyone who knows her wasn’t surprised that it focused on thanking others.

But the Galway woman’s achievements deserve to be highlighted. Over 12 years of service in the green jersey, a Grand Slam, another Six Nations title, a World Cup semi-final, Ireland’s first-ever win over New Zealand, captaining both the 15s and 7s.

“She’s a genuine GOAT,” is how former Ireland head coach Philip Doyle puts it.

“She was the best player I coached in my time with Ireland.”

Molloy comes from sporting stock. She could have taken her pick and excelled at any code she chose. Rugby was lucky enough that she fell for the oval ball.

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Her father, Evan, is a huge figure in the Colaiste Iognáid [or 'Jez'] Rowing Club and her older brother, Liam, represented Ireland in rowing. Her younger brother, Timmy, played underage soccer for the Republic of Ireland and her sister, Emily, did the same in hockey.

Growing up in Galway, Claire took to soccer and Gaelic football, excelling in the latter. When she was still only 16, she played in a senior ladies’ All-Ireland final defeat to Cork, having already helped Galway to the All-Ireland U18 title that year.

regina-curtin-and-claire-molloy-3042005 Molloy playing for the senior Galway team in 2005. INPHO INPHO

It was only when she moved to Cardiff University to study medicine that Molloy landed in rugby, having struggled to find a football team. Playing with the Cardiff Quins, her talent was instantly obvious and she was fast-tracked into Ireland camp in 2008. 

Fiona Coghlan, another of Ireland’s greats, remembers Molloy turning up to training as a raw but extremely competitive 20-year-old.

“There was just this annoying little one who we all thought was offside every time because she had this ability to smash everything,” says Coghlan with a laugh.

“Everyone was roaring that she was offside but clearly she wasn’t – she was just involved in everything all the time. That’s the way she has always been.”

Molloy made her Test debut in the 2009 Six Nations, coming off the bench as Ireland beat France for the first time in their history. Her rapid rise meant she was soon a key player in the green jersey.

Doyle, who took over in 2010, recalls being blown away by how polished a player Molloy had already become at that stage. Her skill at the breakdown was already bordering on art.

“She was definitely the first real jackler we came across,” he says. “Maggie Alphonsi was around at the same time doing it as well for England, but definitely Irish-wise, Claire was the first proper jackler we saw.

“It was great going up against England because herself and Maggie was just a gem to watch.”

Giselle Mather, who has been coaching Molloy at Wasps since 2018, remembers her team coming up against the Irish flanker in 2010 after Molloy had joined Bristol Ladies.

Mather mentally noted Molloy’s name, marking her down as a player she would love to coach in the future. 

“It was just instantly obvious to me that she was a player ahead of her time,” says Wasps director of rugby Mather. “She understood the game, she had the speed of thought, she was over the ball like nothing on earth, and she knew her role.

“Back in the day, a lot of players just played but she knew what a seven should be doing, and she did it.”

gillian-bourke-fiona-coghlan-and-claire-molloy Molloy packs down behind Coghlan during their win over New Zealand in 2014. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

With Ireland, Molloy’s timing was good – she was part of a team that was moving in the right direction under Doyle and assistant coach Greg McWilliams [who is soon to return as Ireland's head coach], with players of the calibre of Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell, Niamh Briggs, Alison Miller, Marie Louise Reilly driving standards too.

By 2013, they were ready to launch a Six Nations bid and ended up winning a Grand Slam. Molloy was outstanding, having somehow managed to balance the title tilt with preparation for her final medical exams.

“The whole team were involved in Claire Molloy’s finals,” says Doyle, explaining how every player in camp would always be armed with cards that had medical questions printed on them, allowing them to fire questions at Molloy at any moment.

Coghlan takes up the story:

“The day before the Grand Slam game against Italy, she was using us as patients! We’d get a random card, then we’d go into her and tell her about these symptoms and she would have to diagnose us.

“This is literally the day before the game to win the Grand Slam.”

Molloy starred against Italy and then returned to Cardiff with grazes all over her face, ending up in the same exam room as Wales and Lions centre Jamie Roberts.

Coghlan genuinely struggles to understand how her team-mate managed to balance such demands, flying over and back to Ireland as she so regularly did on top of study, work, and rugby. Oftentimes, Molloy could only make one Bristol training session a week, getting through the rest of her training solo.

Molloy craves the intellectual challenges, though. She likes how busy her job is. Last year, she was on the frontline of the pandemic working as an accident and emergency doctor at the University of Wales Hospital in Cardiff. 

Even during her study, Molloy has revealed another talent for sketching.

“She’s bloody clever – a really smart, intelligent person,” says Mather.

Just as she has progressed in the medical world, Molloy made a name for herself in international rugby with remarkably consistent high-quality performances.

There was invariably a target on her head as the opposition looked to stifle her influence around the breakdown in particular. Doyle explains that Ireland often gave Molloy a free role outside their overall game plan, allowing her to roam but always understanding that she would make the best decision for the team.

Mather says that Wasps’ opponents still have to make plans against the turnover queen.

“She’s not a big player, as in physically big, but she is technically brilliant and she is so brave,” says Mather.

claire-molloy-on-her-way-to-scoring-a-try Molloy was a relentless presence for Ireland over the course of 74 caps. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“There aren’t many players who are prepared to put their heads where Claire Molloy does. She doesn’t see it that way because it’s just what she does.”

Molloy’s attacking prowess has also developed throughout her career, with more recent seasons seeing her marauding out wide for Ireland and Wasps, using her footwork and athleticism to beat defenders.  

The complete, all-action nature of her game earned her respect all over the rugby world.

“I know for a fact that in the past, from an England perspective, if they could have picked any player outside of those that were English, they would have picked Molloy,” says Mather.

Doyle saw things from the other side:

“The English hated playing against her!”

Molloy has never felt the need to be a dominant voice in changing rooms. Doyle describes her as a “silent assassin” but stresses that when she did speak up in Ireland camp, every word was of value, something that Coghlan echoes.

“Any time she speaks, it’s measured and not just for the sake of speaking,” says Coghlan. “If she had something to say, you knew it was important.”

She led by actions as much as anything, captaining the Ireland 7s team at one stage and then leading the 15s side for the disappointing 2017 home World Cup after Briggs had been ruled out through injury.

Mather says Molloy is a leader in Wasps too, often simply by being a good person. She points to how Molloy’s medical instincts often kick in when a team-mate goes down injured.

“She is so genuinely empathetic and caring for everyone around her.”

Having taken a sabbatical in 2019 to focus on her third year of specific training in emergency medicine, Molloy returned for Ireland for last year’s delayed finish to the 2020 Six Nations and then started the first two games of this year’s championship before dropping out of Adam Grigg’s starting XV.

The final chapter with Ireland at the World Cup Qualifier with Parma was an unhappy one, with many commentators wondering why her vast experience wasn’t included in the starting team.

claire-molloy Molloy will continue to play with Wasps. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Molloy will continue to play for Wasps, although she’s currently sidelined after sustaining a fracture to the face in their recent clash with Gloucester – another mark of her unrelenting competitiveness.

Mather hopes there is plenty more rugby left in Molloy and she stresses that Irish rugby must harness her knowledge again in the future.

“If Ireland don’t use her in the future in some form or another, I don’t know what they’re doing. She has so much to add.” 

Whatever happens next, Molloy will go down as a genuine great of Irish rugby.

“She’s the most natural seven I’ve ever come across, and I’d even say that across male and female rugby,” says Doyle.

“She was born for that position.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more>

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella, and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ first URC blocks and look ahead to November for the Ireland men’s and women’s teams on The42 Rugby Weekly:

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