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'I love defence, I love tackling' - Ireland hooker Bourke suited to French test

The UL Bohemians and Munster front row works as a performance analyst when she’s not playing.

Bourke prepares for a line-out throw during the World Cup in France.
Bourke prepares for a line-out throw during the World Cup in France.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THIS IS ONE for the front row union.

“Me and Ailis Egan give out because nobody interviews the front row, and we do so much work that nobody ever gives us credit for!” jokes Ireland hooker Gillian Bourke.

The Limerick native has a close bond with tighthead prop Egan, what their teammates call a ‘fromance’. And while Bourke, Egan and captain Fiona Coghlan had a tough day out against England in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final defeat, their performances in the pool stages were superb.

Bourke proves an intriguing interviewee, honest and with a clear understanding of what is required at the top level of women’s rugby. The Munster hooker’s working life as a performance analyst has allowed her to develop such a strong game intelligence.

The 29-year-old, who has won nine All-Ireland titles with club side UL Bohemians, began chopping up match tape for Munster in 2008 under coaches Sarah-Jane Belton and Fiona Steed, using the Sportscode-ready laptop of Steed’s husband, John Hayes.

She worked with the Ireland 7s set-up in the same capacity up to the end of last season, and will look for more video analysis work post-World Cup.

“I think it makes you a more intelligent player,” says Bourke. “I watch other people so much that I’d have an understanding of what you need to do when you get up out of a ruck, for example, scanning the pitch.

Ailis Egan, Gillian Bourke and Fiona Coghlan 29/7/2014 Egan, Bourke and Coghlan hit the scrum machine. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It helps because I can understand what the process is and maybe a step or two ahead of the process. I think at this level, most people have to have that kind of understanding.”

Bourke began playing rugby at the age of 19, while studying at the University of Limerick, for whom she played her first-ever rugby match. Previously, she had been involved in showjumping, although her father has always been an ardent Munster fan.

Originally a tighthead prop, Bourke remembers that Coghlan “lifted me off clean the ground” in her first scrum in an inter-provincial fixture, with Bourke lining out for Connacht at that stage.

What has always attracted the 5′ 5″ front row to the game is the simple pleasure of defending, a thirst for contact despite her relative lack of size.

“I think I just throw my head into anything. I love defence, I love tackling. I’m not as good a ball carrier because I’m not as big as other people. I can get a few yards, but I’m not as powerful as Ailis, say, she’s powerful.

“I like contact, I like supporting people. I love the defensive stuff, because I don’t really care about how big they are. Even when I first started training, I just loved getting into the contact. I love having someone opposite me and going ‘she’s mine and I’m going to get on her so fast she doesn’t even know you’re there’.”

Jackie Shiels, Sophie Spence and Gillian Bourke Jackie Shiels, Sophie Spence and Bourke are hoping to have more to celebrate tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That attitude has been evident in Bourke’s aggressive chop tackling, in-contact wrestling skills and leeching during pick and drives around the fringes for Ireland. The same mindset also makes her ideally suited to the challenge of a heavy, direct French side tomorrow in Ireland’s third-place play-off at Stade Jean-Bouin [KO 3.30pm Irish time, TG4].

“I don’t mind playing them actually. I know they’re big, but they do fall over easily when you hit them,” points out Bourke

Body height is so important. I think if you start off in the three-point stance, you’re always going to be in a good position to make a tackle, especially in around 10, 20, 30 area [the fringes of the ruck]. If we can get into that mindset for the weekend, they’re not going to run over us.”

Now nearing the 50-cap mark, and very much focused on reaching it, Bourke is nicknamed ‘TNT’ by the Ireland squad, short for ‘The National Treasure’. Such a lofty tag comes on account of her crucial try against Wales during the 2013 Grand Slam.

As teammates Ashleigh Baxter and Claire Molloy run past in the midst of their second water fight of the day, the experienced Bourke laughs and comments that Ireland are recovering from the disappointment of the heavy defeat to England.

Tomorrow provides the chance to put it right. Bourke is likely to be leading from the front, diving at ankles and chopping down those explosive French ball carriers, loving every minute of it.

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Murray Kinsella

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