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'Him holding the Sam Maguire was alongside a picture of the Irish soccer team meeting the Pope'

The42 takes a look at some cases in Irish sporting history where athletes and coaches moved between different sports.

Updated Feb 25th 2022, 12:02 PM

Eimear Considine  John O'Mahony

EIMEAR CONSIDINE WAS struggling to work out the maths when she was deployed into action for Ireland at a Sevens tournament in San Diego.

‘How can I go in at nine when there’s seven players on the pitch?’ she questioned to herself quietly when then-coach Anthony Eddy sent her in. Now, as an established international player, she knows he was referring to the scrum-half position.

But in 2015, not long after first picking up the oval ball, she was still trying to understand rugby language. She was coming from a Gaelic Games background, where nine slots neatly into 15 and the playing positions run linearly along the pitch.

Forwards are the nimble-footed attacking players who play up front, and the backs are defenders. The same terms exist in rugby but the application is slightly different.

Puzzled but eager, Considine tried to follow Eddy’s instructions in what was her first proper game of rugby at the age of 23. Prior to that, she had just completed some basic training as an introduction to the sport.

“That just sums up how little I knew about rugby,” she tells The42 looking back on the early stages of crossing between sports.

“I wouldn’t like to look back at the footage of it. It was horrendous but I suppose I didn’t know how much I didn’t know at the time.”

“I’m a PE teacher so I did a module in college of tag rugby. And then I played a random tournament, which was a fundraiser or something, but I’d say I was throwing the ball forward and I genuinely had no idea.

“I would have been into rugby and our family would have watched Munster and that. But I didn’t understand the rules or concepts or anything to do with it. I enjoy watching any sport but I had no idea of the laws when I started to play.”

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Last summer, when the Covid-19 restrictions eased to the point of having permission to travel between counties, former Galway football manager John O’Mahony paid a special visit to someone.

In Mick Byrne’s garden in Ashbourne, the pair conversed in the sun and reminisced on what they had achieved together. They helped Leitrim end a 67-year wait for a Connacht SFC title in 1994 and delivered Connacht and All-Ireland glory for Galway in 1998.

Great days to recall at a time when the world was stalled by a pandemic.

Byrne was synonymous with Irish soccer in the 90s, an acolyte of Jack Charlton during his time as the Republic of Ireland manager. The famous physio also served under Mick McCarthy when the title changed hands later that decade.

And when O’Mahony first took over the Leitrim footballers, he wanted to bring in someone who had experienced success at some kind of meaningful level. Leitrim’s cabinet had been barren for so long that they needed to be in the presence of someone who could make major silverware attainable for them.

“There was an air of confidence,” explains O’Mahony. “He’d be treating them and he’d be giving them a Roy Keane signed jersey or a pair of shorts or whatever. There was a touchable link with the success of the soccer team at the time, and Mick was the conduit for the Leitrim football team.

“In everything that he did, it was all positive. He’d be talking to them and throwing bits and pieces of Irish gear that he had to them. He was so friendly and he really connected with them, and I was loving that. When I went to Leitrim, you had a situation where they hadn’t won in 67 years so I was trying to make the point that you don’t have a divine right to win all the time but you don’t have a divine right to lose all the time either.

“He was absolutely brilliant and he regaled them with stories of reaching the quarter-final in 1990 and meeting the Pope and all this stuff.

“It was kind of sowing a seed in these fellas that they could be famous, so he was a psychological asset as well as a physio.”

***

High-profile transitions between different sports have occurred twice in Ireland recently. Incidentally, both cases involved a switch from rugby to GAA as Gordon D’Arcy joined the backroom team of the Wexford hurlers, while Rob Kearney returned to play football with his local club Cooley Kickhams.

For Eimear Considine, the journey to rugby began with a message on LinkedIn inviting her to try it out.

eimear-considine-kim-flood-mairead-coyle-and-ciara-cooney-celebrate-after-the-game Considine [second from right] after Ireland's game against France in the 2017 Six Nations. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

She was a teacher in Dublin at the time, and was finding the commute home to commit to the Clare Ladies and Clare camogie team quite challenging. Stan McDowell, the IRFU Sevens Development Coach and Talent Identification Coordinator, had seen her play at a Gaelic football tournament and thought she might have something to offer to rugby.

Considine, sensing that she might be in need of a change, was intrigued by the LinkedIn inquiry and agreed to give it a shot.

“I think it was around September I did fitness testing,” she recalls of those first steps into rugby in 2014. “For September, October, November, it was just me and a small group of girls. We had no idea, we were all Gaelic footballers and we were started doing individual, isolated skills work and passing work and all the stuff that I had no idea about.

“I was lucky enough then, there was a change of management when Anthony Eddy came in so I came in for one camp that December with the Ireland Sevens full squad. He didn’t know anybody so he took the whole squad away to a tournament and I was lucky to go.”

In 1994, most of the Leitrim was based in Dublin, and Kells was nominated as the meeting point for their training sessions to save the players from a heavy commute. O’Mahony linked up with Byrne through Leitrim man Brendan Harvey, who had a personal connection with the Dublin physio. 

And since that campaign yielded such a successful outcome, O’Mahony moved to include Byrne in the backroom unit when he took over the Galway team four years later.

Soccer might be the sport that Byrne is most commonly associated with but he has strong roots in GAA. He played both football and hurling for the Clanna Gael club and shared the field alongside Mickey Whelan, a highly renowned GAA man in Dublin.

In a 1998 interview with the Connacht Tribune, Whelan remarked that nobody in the GAA ever disrespected him about his soccer connections.

But, as O’Mahony can attest, everyone who knew Byrne could only ever see the pure intentions he had for the teams he was working with.

“You’d only need to talk to Mick for five minutes to know there were no agendas. He wasn’t boasting about his involvement in soccer, but was helping to lift everyone through his status. And he made it easy for people to connect with him. There was never any resentment.

“He’d mix with the fans as easy as he did with the Irish fans, and so on. I think that’s why he got on so well with Jack Charlton because Jack was a similar outgoing [person] in the way he dealt with the team and his big personality. That extended to Mick and it was great.

“He brought players to matches and got us tickets for matches. We’d meet the players after the games. It happened a few times that we were able to do that.

“My daughter Niamh had her appendix one weekend of a game, I think it was an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final. The following day, Mick got Roy Keane to ring her. She couldn’t believe it and that’s maybe an example of the connectivity he brought to individuals, and to the team.”

***

Within two years of picking up rugby, Considine was an Irish 15s international. She was included in the 2017 Six Nations squad under then-manager Tom Tierney and received her first cap when she came on as a substitute against Scotland in that campaign.

She was retained in the squad for the historic home World Cup later that year and has continued to establish a foothold in the Irish camp.

Now, she’s a first choice full-back for Ireland. But in the early stages of her career, it was a struggle for her to grasp the basics.

“There was so much, it really was difficult. I was one of the main players for Clare football at the time, I was vice-captain of the Clare camogie team. I was good at what I did without thinking about what I was doing.

“And I had to really think about everything in rugby, nothing came natural to me. Whether it was in defence or in attack. I had to think all the time which was really frustrating, going from being good to being the worst, and I was the worst. I had no idea.

“Yes, I might have watched rugby but I knew nothing about it. So I went from knowing the bare minimum to thankfully learning a bit about it since. It was good to get taught from an international standard and that I didn’t pick up bad habits. I had good quality coaching from the top.”

Her stagnant rate of progression inspired her brother to get a Christmas present that aimed to poke fun at her problem. But it turned out to be an important education tool for her.

“He got me a rugby for dummies book. I genuinely read it and it went through all the positions and all the things that I just did not know about rugby.

“It was a piss take of a present but it ended up being really useful at the very start of my rugby career. Even now, there’s always adjustments being made to the laws, there’s always different things happening around the ruck. You’re looking at the ruck thinking what’s the best option here?

“It’s such a difficult technical area that I had no clue of when I first started.”

***

Leitrim’s 1994 season coincided with another major sporting event — the USA World Cup. Charlton’s Ireland had qualified for the tournament, meaning that Byrne was going to be engaged abroad for much of the summer months.

The summer time is peak championship weather in the GAA, but O’Mahony says that there were no scheduling conflicts for Byrne as far as his commitment to Leitrim was concerned.

“No it never cut across. His priority was the Irish soccer team but whenever he was available. The timing of the World Cup worked out fine because I was delighted to have him whenever he was available.

“He made a major impact with us by being available any time he could. He couldn’t have been any more co-operative.”

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And O’Mahony didn’t just look to soccer for ideas on how to improve the teams he was in charge of. While in charge of Galway, he sought the services of former Ireland manager Eddie O’Sullivan to assist with their strength and conditioning work.

O’Sullivan is Cork by birth but during that time, he was based in Galway, and O’Mahony arranged for the two to meet. 

Rugby was entering a professional era in those years, which enabled O’Sullivan to design fitness, strength and gym programmes that would revolutionise the way Galway played. O’Sullivan was appointed as head coach of the US Eagles later that season, but O’Mahony was still able to obtain the programmes through the fax machine.

Additionally, O’Mahony drafted in Keith Wood to give the players a talk on the eve of the All-Ireland final. The origins of that idea came from the 1997 Lions documentary, which O’Mahony had seen by chance.

“A big character in that was Keith Wood,” O’Mahony says about the Munster legend’s energetic performance in that programme.

“I knew he was with Harlequins at the time and his mother was living at home so I rang the local Garda station. They went up to the house and within 10 minutes, I had Keith Wood on my phone and we got him over for the final preparations. And he came over to the final as our guest.

“I remember it was interesting talking to him after we won that night, he was talking about the atmosphere in Croke Park and saying that he’d give anything to play in that.

“Before the final, we were up in the Glenroyal Hotel in Maynooth and Keith had a game on the Saturday with Harlequins and got injured but insisted on fulfilling his date with us. We showed a part of the documentary that we had showed at the beginning of the year, dimmed the lights and when the lights came back on, Keith Wood was sitting in front of the players.

“He had them in the palm of his hands for the next half an hour and I have no doubt, contributed hugely to the mental attitude of us winning the All-Ireland.”

Galway certainly benefited from O’Mahony’s philosophy of dipping into other sports as they ended the year by lifting the Sam Maguire.

mick-byrne-2791998 Mick Byrne after celebrates after Galway won the All-Ireland in 1998. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

And the memories of that season are immortalised on the walls of Mick Byrne’s home. O’Mahony had a look at the gallery of his sporting life when he called over for that visit last year.

“He brought me in to look at the pictures that he had up on walls and he had him holding the Sam Maguire very much alongside the Irish soccer team meeting the Pope in Rome.

“I suppose he has talked very fondly of walking out on Croke Park on All-Ireland final day and I remember giving him a framed photo of him lifting the Sam Maguire on the steps of the Hogan Stand.

“We’d be in regular contact. It’s one of those things when you’re in team sport and you win something significant, you have a bond with everyone that was with you and I would talk Mick at least fortnightly. He played a major role.”

Considine had no choice but to step away from Ladies football and camogie when her rugby days began. But by then, she had already racked up a great haul of silverware. She won an All-Ireland intermediate title with the Clare Ladies in 2009, and enjoyed county championship success in both camogie and football.

“I’m so glad that I started off with football and camogie because I wouldn’t be who I am without it. I wouldn’t have everything about my physical ability, my sporting ability. It came from what I grew up with.

“Sometimes I miss it, sometimes I don’t. 

“I’m really happy with where I am with rugby at the moment, and I’m currently trying to be better and push myself.”

Several of Considine’s former and present teammates on the Ireland team have come from similar beginnings, starting out with a different sport before veering into rugby later in life.

Considine, who is preparing for the AIL finals with UL Bohs this weekend, stresses that playing different sports allows players to broaden their skillset.

But she hopes that the infrastructure of the sport will be better for future generations of female rugby players.

“Female rugby players in Ireland don’t have the opportunities that the men have to play to the extent that they have,” she explains.

“I’m constantly learning, and even playing club the last few weekends has been the most amount of games I’ve played consecutively outside of Six Nations in my whole career, especially with Covid the last couple of years.

“I suppose we don’t have the same opportunities to learn the way they would because they have Schools Rugby, Junior Cup, Senior Cup. They can go into academies and it’s their full-time job. It’s not our full-time job, it’s more just a hobby.

“Every game that I play is constantly learning.”

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