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'I remember telling the lads in school I'd like to play rugby and they laughed'

Michelle Claffey was brought up in a Gaelic football household but has overcome two serious knee injuries to fulfil her ambition of playing rugby for Ireland.

MICHELLE CLAFFEY PUTS it down to stubbornness. You could use other words to describe it, but the bottom line is that her rugby career may have been very short-lived had it not been for a steely determination.

It would have been easy, after cruelly suffering a second serious knee injury in the space of a year, to accept defeat and walk away from the sport. It would have been easy, as she forced herself to get up at 5am before work to diligently complete two years of meticulous rehab, one knee after the other, to wonder was it worth it and throw in the towel.

Michelle Claffey Ireland centre Michelle Claffey. Source: Inpho

But she didn’t. Maybe it was because of what those lads had said to her back in secondary school, maybe it was because she had sacrificed Gaelic football to play rugby, or maybe it was because playing sport is all she has ever known. 

The 28-year-old has a rich sporting background; her uncle, Kieran Claffey, was part of the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland senior football championship in 1971, and indeed her first love was Gaelic football. 

Claffey, who was always encouraged to play sport growing up, won Division 4 of the National League with Offaly back in 2004, having also represented the county at minor level in her formative years.

After secondary school, Claffey studied Economics and Finance at the University of Limerick and it was there where she first played rugby at the age of 21, starting a love affair with the sport that would see her win inter-provincial titles with Leinster and represent Ireland on the international stage.

“The lads would have played it in school,” she recalls to The42. “And I remember telling them how I’d like to play rugby and they laughed at me. I was like, right, I’m going to do it then.”

The problem for Claffey, however, was that there was no opportunity for her to play at the time. 

There was no opportunity, it was unheard of. That would have been 2004. There were no outlets there for girls to play but thankfully that tide has totally changed.

With her degree completed, a move to Dublin to take up a position with Invesco in 2010 accelerated Claffey’s rugby journey. She joined Blackrock College RFC, where she was thrown in at the deep end in the All-Ireland League despite her tender experience with the oval ball.

“They only had one team at the time so you ended up learning pretty quickly.”

Claffey’s Gaelic football background meant she had many of the physical attributes required to play rugby, while she took up the sevens format of the game to hone her handling, kicking and tackling skills. There was clearly a lot of promise there.

But the centre’s progress towards provincial and international honours hit a roadblock during the summer of 2012, as she suffered an ACL injury playing sevens and was ruled out for 12 months after surgery.

“When are you giving that thing up, is what my Mam would say,” Claffey laughs. 

Determined not to let the setback derail her ambitions of playing for Leinster, the Offaly native worked hard to get back in better shape than she was before the injury, while also using the layoff to concentrate on other aspects of her game such as spatial awareness.  

But just as she was back on the pitch and targeting a big season with Blackrock, lightning struck twice as Claffey got her foot stuck in the ground in one of her first matches back and suffered the same injury to her other knee.

It was an unspeakably cruel blow to have to face into the monotony of another year on the sidelines, working in the gym to build the strength back up in the knee. It would have been easy to say enough was enough, particularly as her career off the pitch with the Central Bank and, more recently, Ernst and Young was becoming busier.

“It was just stubbornness,” she says. 

Michelle Claffey Claffey in action at Twickenham last November. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I was out for a year with both, but the second time I knew exactly what I needed to do and saw it as a challenge to get back quicker. I made mistakes the first time around so I was determined not to make them again.

“I worked really hard to make sure the mistakes of the first one didn’t hinder my comeback the second time around.”

And so, after the best part of two years out, Claffey stuck to her word and got back on the pitch, fitter and stronger than ever before. A Leinster debut followed and as her form continued on an upward trajectory at club level, Ireland coach Adam Griggs came calling last year.

After all the pain and agony of two injury layoffs, Claffey earned the honour she so desperately deserved when coming off the bench in the Six Nations game against Italy at Donnybrook last March, before winning her first start against USA in November.

“It was pretty emotional,” she admits. “It was massive. My family was there — my Mam, Dad, brother, the whole lot.”

Now, 12 months on, Claffey is preparing for her second Six Nations with Ireland as Griggs’ squad gear up for Friday’s championship opener against England at Donnybrook [KO 5pm, RTÉ2].

With the RFU implementing full-time contracts for its women’s programme at the start of 2019, Ireland have been handed the toughest opening game assignment but their performance at Twickenham in November has left grounds for optimism.

Although beaten by England that day, Griggs’ side — who were compromised by injuries both before and during the game — showed their ability to perform on the big stage as the coach continues to implement his philosophy on the squad.

Ireland displayed glimpses of a free-flowing and more expansive approach during last year’s Six Nations and there were further signs of progression in November, even if they ended the series with defeats to USA and England.

RB1_6302 The 28-year-old is now a PINERGY ambassador. Source: Inpho

“It showed us that we can put a performance in and we have the ability to play to our gameplan,” Claffey says of the 37-15 loss in London during the Autumn.

“We were throwing the ball wide towards the end of the game. We never gave up. We are able to put in a performance. It shows us that we have the ability to do it.”

But it’s all well and good producing it in patches, Ireland need to start coming up with 80-minute performances at international level. A return of just two wins in 2018 needs to be bettered this time around, with Griggs’ side languishing in 10th place — behind the likes of Italy, Spain and Wales — in the World Rugby rankings.

“The November internationals have helped us get to a place we’re comfortable with it all,” she adds.

“Top three finish, that’s what we’re pushing for. Putting on a performance when we’re in the green jersey, having our standards and making sure that we are fully proud walking off that pitch.

“It really is the pride in the jersey and being able to walk off the pitch have produced a performance you can be proud of. You don’t want to walk off knowing you left something behind.”

PINERGY this week announced that it has teamed up with international rugby player Michelle Claffey for 2019. PINERGY, through its #PINERGYpassions programme, helps support ambitious young people to follow their passion, drive their energy and achieve their goals. For more visit pinergy.ie.

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Ryan Bailey

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