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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 19 January, 2019

'You go to school and you'll always get comments with your weight. It wasn't a very positive time'

Leah Lyons talks to The42 about Ireland’s Six Nations campaign and why she decided to call out a spectator who made a horrible remark about her.

Updated at 14.18

IRELAND HAD PLENTY to celebrate following their Six Nations win over Wales back in February.

Sene Naoupu celebrates her try with teammates Ireland celebrating a try against Wales in the 2018 Six Nations. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It was their second win on the bounce after suffering disappointment against France in the opening round, and it gave them a bonus point result to take into their final home game against Scotland.

It was an enjoyable day for Leah Lyons as well, who scored one of Ireland’s five tries at the end of a maul to help them along to that 35-12 victory. But what was supposed to be a memorable occasion for her and her family was marred by a horrible remark about the prop’s size made by a spectator in the crowd.

They suspect that it might have been an Irish fan too, which compounds the sense of disappointment she feels, knowing that someone would say something offensive about one of the players in the first place.

Lyons’ parents were just three rows away from the person who made the comment, and they relayed the disappointing details to their daughter after the game in Donnybrook.

Unable to sleep that night from the adrenaline of the victory, Lyons lay in bed contemplating how to handle all this. Amidst the many thoughts that were running through her mind, there was one thing for sure:

I’m not going to leave this without saying anything.”

Her time spent thinking about the most effective way to highlight the incident culminated in a tweet which generated over 270 retweets, 1,900 likes and more than 200 replies offering their support to her.

“Poor choice of wording from a man in the crowd (Irish) yesterday… ‘Heifer’ in relating to myself,” the tweet read.

Several others contacted her privately on social media to applaud her for calling out the unacceptable behaviour.

“I think it deserved to be said,” she tells The42.

“You’re looking at the person surrounded by hundreds of kids who are there.

It’s difficult when it comes from someone in the crowd and you’re surrounded by kids. For someone to make a remark like that, you’re just kind of like ‘how do you justify saying that when it was a positive day for everyone?’

“I’m playing and trying to do my best in a green jersey. You have kids there who are playing it for fun and girls who are breaking into the underage provinces and they hear that. It’s disappointing for them because you don’t want them to get a bad idea that this is will happen to them.

I wanted to stand up for myself. Whoever heard that don’t need to hear it. It’s not needed in the game.

“The support out of it was crazy. I didn’t expect it to get as big as it did. Every single comment, post and tweet I got back was positive. It was to make an awareness that I’m not going to stand for it and then you have hundreds of people aren’t going to stand for it.”

Sport has always been a central part of Lyons’ life, and she sampled everything from soccer to hurling, to Taekwondo, basketball and even fishing over the years. But coming from a rugby family with a strong passion for Munster, the oval ball game took her preference in the end.

It started to take precedence in her life at the ages of 14 and 15 and she was helping out at the Munster women’s training sessions by holding tackle bags and attending to any other jobs that they had for her.

Without any girls’ teams in the local Ballyhooley and Fermoy area for her to join when she was growing up, Lyons played on the boys’ teams alongside her twin brother until the Fermoy Lionesses was formed.

Her father coached her all the way up through the underage ranks, and by 2013 she had made her senior debut for Munster. She progressed onto the international senior team three years later, with former head coach Tom Tierney handing her her debut against England in one of their November internationals.

Leah Lyons Lyons training with Ireland in 2016. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s an absolutely amazing feeling to try and get into a green jersey and I suppose that day I was hoping to get around 15 or 20 minutes, and then to get 50 or 60 minutes was crazy really,” Lyons recalls.

At the time they [England] were number one in the world, you’re gobsmacked nearly at who you’re playing with and against.

“I’m very grateful of Tom to give me the opportunity to show what I’m able to do.

“For me, it was probably quite a fast introduction to everything. To me, I said I’d take it by the horns and see how I go and hopefully get an opportunity, which I did. You have to showcase what you’re made of or you might not get an opportunity again. Even at the training camps you have to do your best.

“I was young and the people around were good to me and put me in the right places and told me the right things.”

Lyons is aware of her size, but she hopes that her selection on the different teams she’s been with down through the years has been based on her skills rather than her shape.

“I hope I’m being picked because I’m a decent player. I’m bigger than the rest of them, I know that but my way of looking at it is I have the skills to play that position instead of ‘she’s big she’s able to play.’

I suppose growing up, I’ve always been a big kid, I’ve never been small. You grow up and obviously you go to school and you’ll always get comments and stuff like that with your weight.

“It wasn’t a very positive time growing up for me being big.

“But I wanted to play my rugby. Comments and stuff, I pushed them to the side and use them as a bit of ammo when someone says something to you. Show them why you’re doing it and do it to the best of your ability.”

The recent Six Nations campaign produced mixed results for Adam Griggs’ side, including two home wins against Italy and Wales, while the other three games ended in defeat for Ireland. This amounted to a third-placed finish on the Six Nations table.

Sarah Bern with Paula Fitzpatrick and Leah Lyons Lyons in action against England during the recent Six Nations campaign. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

France and World Cup finalists England were always expected to be tough assignments for the Irish team, although some more clinical finishing in the opening half of the England clash could have changed the complexion of the tie.

But it’s the three-point defeat to the Scots that is the more disappointing result.

“France was a tough game for us and then going into Italy and Wales, they were two great games, we improved significantly. And then the Scottish match, it kind of fell away from us, it was very disappointing.

“I suppose we tried to turn it around and get a big, positive performance against England and it was going to be a very tough task. We showed positive sides in the performance that we gave.

“Probably what let us down was our final pass and our last phase that we needed to get them [scores] but obviously it’s disappointing. That [Claire Molloy] try was a team try and it paid off for what we did in the first and second half and it was well deserved at the end of it.”

Adam Griggs before the game Ireland women's head coach Adam Griggs. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Griggs, whose six-month contract came to a conclusion at the end of the Six Nations, has since been rewarded for his efforts by being kept on as the team’s head coach. As part of his role, the New Zealand native will now also join the Women’s Sevens coaching team.

Prior to the final Six Nations game against England, Hannah Tyrrell expressed her hope that he would continue in his position, and her teammate Lyons echoes those sentiments.

“He’s well deserved of his position getting full-time. A lot of us are very happy he’s staying on, he’s given us a new sense of rugby and a new way of playing it. It’s positive from [the] camp side of things.

“I think Adam has a different expansive way of playing.”

Lyons has been coaching at Easter camps in Munster recently where boys and girls of various ages, backgrounds and abilities are learning the skills that they need to play rugby.

Discussions about size or what she experienced in the Welsh game haven’t directly come up with the children, but Lyons is imparting the knowledge that there is a place for all of them in rugby, irrespective of their size.

Just as her tweet proclaims, this is a game for everyone.

“There’s kids there of every shape and size, speed and strength. You’re trying to teach them and every single one of them are well able to do their job on a pitch and play this game.

“For younger players when they hear that, [abuse], you just think that they’re young and they’re learning. They’re at a stage in their life where they’re playing rugby because they enjoy it. They need to go out and enjoy it. Give them encouragement instead of putting them down.”

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