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Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

'Ireland need to qualify for a World Cup and I wanted to be a better player'

Clare woman Edel McMahon is feeling the benefits of moving away to play with Wasps.
Mar 8th 2020, 6:00 AM 3,485 1

THE CAMERA LENSES were trained in tight enough to get a good look at the faces between the heavy droplets.

Some carred while more winced. It was like a bad Hollywood depiction of what rugby in the rain looks like. Hoses on at maximum capacity, all that was missing was the super slow-mo and a moving Hans Zimmer score.

Edel McMahon might have been standing on the flank of that pre-crouched scrum wondering why she wasn’t just watching from home, or even at work in a pristine clean lab. Another character may even have followed the direction of the bad movie script and gone into flashback mode wondering why she hadn’t stayed away from rugby training that faithful night of her sliding doors moment.

Instead, she was smiling. Relishing the collisions and conditions as Storm Ciara battered away. McMahon made 13 tackles in that win over Wales, 23 in the Trojan efforts of round one’s success against Scotland. She’ll see it just as part of the job for an openside but those efforts made her the only woman in the top five tackler list on both of the opening two Sundays in Ireland’s resurgent Six Nations campaign.

It was the physicality that originally made McMahon stick with the sport. Her appetite for destruction means rugby has plenty more in store for her.

The Six Nations is currently in limbo, Ireland’s last outing was a humbling shut-out against the uber-impressive Englishwomen and it appears as though they will have to wait months before getting a crack at hitting their goal of winning their third home match of the tournament.

Yet, the swelling optimism has been palpable. The eye-catching breaks from 18-year-old Beibhinn Parsons have delivered match-turning scores, but the work-rate Adam Griggs’ side have put in on defensive duty is what underpinned their two wins.

megan-williams-and-edel-mcmahon McMahon tackled by Leinster's Megan Williams last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The hit has always been key to McMahon in a sport she initially turned to merely as a means to keep sharp between Gaelic football sessions. The early teachings on the fields of NUIG brought her welcome clarity.

The coach was doing a drill on decision-making and you’d work around a tackler.

And I’m like, ‘I’m allowed to, eh… take her down, am I?

‘Jesus, great.’

So I loved it straight away.

Earlier the same evening, then a student in NUIG, McMahon had her bag packed for training with no intention of putting her hands on an oval ball.

By then a committed corner back with Kilmihill, she had played in goals as a 14-year-old when her the club claimed the Intermediate All-Ireland title. Things tend to move fast for McMahon, she crossed paths with two rugby players on her way to the changing rooms, took them up on the offer to head along and was on the field with them later that evening. After her football training.

One session down before the forwards unit won the tug-of-war for her skill-set and by that weekend she was drawing befuddled looks from her mother and rearranging shifts in Centra to sample the glamour of grassroots rugby.

“My first game was in Carrick-On-Shannon. My mam said I was crazy:

‘Where are ya going? You’ve only started a new game and you’re rearranging work around it!’

“But I kind of knew I was hooked.” 

Rugby reeled her on to Galwegians, Connacht and she was primed to put forward a case to be a bolter for the 2017 World Cup, but ruptured her Achilles tendon a year out. 

She has pulled up trees to make sure she doesn’t miss the tournament a second time.

After leaving NUIG with a crash course in rugby as well as a degree in chemistry, McMahon began work as a lab scientist with the equine-specialising O’Byrne & Halley vet practice in Fethard, Co.Tipperary.

Rugby was still dragging her back to Galway. Training and matches meant she regularly head to hop in the car for five-hour round trips for the privilege of lacing up her boots. Last year, with another World Cup looming, McMahon decided a change of pace was needed.

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“I loved it there, but it was very far away from any AIL club in Division 1. So I was weighing up my options about clubs, because I was travelling two-and-a-half hours for training – five hours in the car – I did it for three years

“I was just thinking, ‘Ireland need to qualify for a World Cup and I wanted to be a better player and more regular starter for Ireland.’”

That shift in focus brought her to Wasps, joining fellow Connacht exile Cliodhna Moloney in the far more hectic rugby environs of the Premiership. 

The move means she must now hop on a plane to make it back for Ireland training, but McMahon is chatting with The42 as she parks up outside her homeplace in Kilmihill, taking advantage of the downtime presented by the Covid-19 cancellations. 

A part-time role with an Irish medical device company, Glenbio Ltd, was in place before she moved to England. So, outside of international windows, living in Acton means she needs to devote less time to work, more time to rugby and, crucially, far less time behind the wheel.

“I live a 13-minute walk from the club,” McMahon says with delight.

And when there are longer commutes to training, they are well worth bus trip north.

“The odd occasion we’d have a session in the Ricoh (Arena, Coventry) with the academy. We’d have a mixed session, a good hard, quality session.

“What I find interesting is, we don’t knew their calls and they don’t know ours. So communication has to be sharp to tell them and offer tips on what we actually want from the session.

I found that quite interesting. At the end of the day rugby is rugby and some of the stuff that really worked, which is nice to see when you strip it down back to basics.

“They’ve been good and they’re trying to integrate the club as a whole.”

Most importantly, McMahon feels justified in moving because she can feel the improvements in herself as a player.  It’s not so much a case of faster, higher, stronger. Just smarter, more efficient. Clinical.

“(I’m) playing a bit smarter, I think. Sometimes I’d have been running around a bit aimlessly around the place. Trying to work hard. You can work hard, but you can work smart as well.

edel-mcmahon Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’d say my rugby IQ has definitely improved. We’re getting a touch of the ball every day of the week. Little and often, makes a massive difference in your ball handling skill, decision-making and stuff. You could be training as much but not have the ball in your hand as much.”

“When I was talking to one of my first coaches in NUIG, he was saying; ‘in our team you were just running around tackling, now you actually understand the game.’”

She feigned affront at the double-edged compliment, for McMahon knew well that she had been just hunting down bodies indiscriminately. Seven years on, she has made herself a core of the Ireland pack. And nine caps in has helped ensure a remarkably smooth transition after the sabbatical taken by Grand Slam-winner and veteran of the Black Ferns win, Claire Molloy.

McMahon’s work has been key in Ireland’s breakdown efforts, an area that worked brilliantly to tee up Kathryn Dane to supply quick ball for multiple angled threats. The Clare woman laments that things did not fare so well against England, but while they were nilled, Ireland at least succeeded in frustrating the world champions in the second half. Plenty of teams have been thoroughly blown away in similar circumstances.

“In our setups we do focus on getting as much quick ball for our 9 so we can play with momentum. We’re still working on the breakdown area…

“We have done a lot of work every week on the fight on the ground and aggression in clear-outs. you could see that in the first two games. Probably not so much against England – they were quite physical and they did a lot to disrupt our ruck and we didn’t get the quality ball.”

“Missing opportunities that we did create was the main thing we looked at. We did create as an attack, but England put our skills and decision-making under huge pressure. 

“That’s the position we want to be in. That’s what you want to challenge yourself against. Scotland and Wales probably didn’t put on the line-speed that England did. 

“Now, they might have been offside a couple of times, but even just to be cuter around that. Be smarter about what we did and how we can counter-act it better, problem-solve during the game.”

Without the Italian match this weekend to offer a chance to bounce back to winning ways on their home turf of Donnybrook, McMahon is back in training camp in Abbottstown as her pack prepares to face up to another formidable opponent.

In Lille, Ireland will face a France side chasing a win to leave them top of the Championship table before England can complete their schedule. McMahon will be there relishing the hits ahead.

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Sean Farrell

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