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'She's a fantastic person who encapsulates everything Ireland will stand for'

Nichola Fryday has enjoyed an impressive rise from Tullamore RFC to become the new Ireland captain.

nichola fryday

IT’S 2017 AND the sun is shining at Tullamore Rugby Club on a lovely day in March.

Ireland international Nichola Fryday has brought the World Cup trophy for a visit to her club a few months before the tournament is hosted on Irish soil.

Out on the pitch, two 10-year-old girls are part of a group throwing a ball around and they’re trying to decide which of them will be Nichola Fryday. Things get a small bit heated.

“I’m Nichola,” says one of them.

“No, no, I’m Nichola,” insists the other.

In the end, they have to agree to share the honour of imitating their new role model.

Offaly woman Fryday had made her Test debut the November before, becoming Tullamore’s first senior female Ireland international. That first cap came before Fryday had even played inter-provincial rugby for Connacht. So it’s no surprise that youngsters at the club had started looking up to her.

Just imagine how it is around their Spollenstown club grounds these days, with Fryday having risen all the way to become Ireland captain at the age of 26. There will be plenty of Tullamore heads at the RDS today as the new era begins with the Six Nations opener against Wales [KO 4.45pm, Virgin Media 1 and BBC 2 NI].

And the young girls among them, as well as those watching on TV at home, will be dreaming of emulating Fryday.

Can’t see, can’t be. 

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With a new head coach in Greg McWilliams and several senior players having retired or been left out of the Six Nations squad, it wasn’t obvious who would take over this year as Ireland skipper in place of Ciara Griffin, one of the retirees.

The official confirmation came on Monday, the day after an emotional announcement behind closed doors in which McWilliams invited Fryday’s parents to join the squad via a Zoom call.

There were tears as they learned about their daughter’s latest achievement. Her mother, Rosemary, probably wasn’t picturing something like this in the future when she encouraged Nichola to head 15 minutes in the road from their home in Kilcormac to take up rugby back in 2014.

When you work back through Fryday’s story, her appointment as skipper makes even more sense. Over at Exeter Chiefs, who the second row joined last November, they’re not surprised at her ascension to the captaincy.

“She’s a really positive person, a family-first person, she always looks after other squad members,” says Exeter head coach Susie Appleby.

“Nichola only speaks at crucial times, she doesn’t just talk for the sake of it. Everyone listens to her because it’s soft and meaningful.”

the-tullamore-rfc-team Tullamore ahead of the their Women's All-Ireland Plate final win in 2017. Fryday is in the centre of the back row. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

And back at Tullamore RFC, where it all started for Fryday, they’re not shocked either.

Colin Hughes was the head coach of the women’s team for five years as they rose through the Leinster ranks to get promoted into the All-Ireland League in 2017, the same year they won the All-Ireland Plate.

Fryday was home from college for the summer in 2014 when her mother encouraged her to give it a go with Tullamore, whose women’s team had started up the year before.

Hughes recalls being immediately struck by Fryday’s height and athleticism when she arrived for pre-season. And a few weeks later, he got a sense of the drive to improve that has taken her to the top.

“We did our first contact session and she was in the ‘newbies’ group for tackle technique, starting right with the basics,” says Hughes, whose sister Ailsa is also an Ireland international in the current squad.

“But Nichola came up to me and said she had done tackling before during a rugby module in transition year in Kilkenny College.

“So she stepped up with girls who had done contact before and I couldn’t believe her tackle tech was so good. Her hinge in her hips, her upper body was parallel to the ground, for such a tall girl to be able to get into that position and hit a girl with her shoulder, whereas a lot of other people were still grabbing with hands, she was straight in.

“It was the first moment where I thought, ‘Wow, she could be a great player.’

“It was just impressive how she came up to me, didn’t really know anybody, and said she wanted to go tackling with the more experienced girls. She had that attitude straight away.”

Fryday fell in with a group of team-mates who were similarly ambitious, some of them already Connacht inter-pro players, and Hughes recalls how they would arrive early for training, working on skills like passing off their weaker hands. 

Fryday played in the back row for Tullamore initially and didn’t even jump in the lineouts until a couple of seasons later. Now she’s the lineout caller for Ireland and a leader in that area with Exeter too.

Less than two years after taking up the game, Fryday was heading for trials with Connacht, where she came second in the fitness tests to underline her athleticism.

nichola-fryday Fryday made her Ireland debut against Canada in 2016. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The Connacht coaches were straight on the phone to then Ireland boss Tom Tierney and, remarkably, Fryday made her Ireland debut before she had a chance to play for Connacht. Her inter-provincial debut came a month later.

Ireland picked Fryday in the second row and though she had enjoyed a swift rise, there were tough times too. She missed out on making the 2017 World Cup squad and then was in and out of the side over the following years.

But Fryday was growing as a leader and she was named Connacht captain in 2019 by then-head coach Brian McClearn.

“Straight away you saw the things you look for in a leader,” says McClearn, who is now working with the Ireland U18s women’s team.

“Nichola was always communicating. It wasn’t just what she said though, she showed it in her actions. She always did what she spoke about. Nichola was only 23 at that time but she had the respect of the older players.”

Fryday also “put her arm around” the younger squad members, including 17-year-old Beibhinn Parsons and Aoibheann Reilly, who makes her Ireland debut at scrum-half today.

Although McClearn knew Fryday was “a natural second row,” Connacht used her at number eight in that inter-pro campaign as they recorded a stirring win over Munster to reach the final where they lost to Leinster. Fryday was all-action, calling the lineouts along with her big tackling and carrying efforts.

Fryday had established herself as a starter in Ireland’s second row by that stage in 2019 but McClearn could see there was even more potential there, particularly given her desire to get better.

“She always came looking for feedback and put that little bit of pressure on you to help her improve. She was trying to push on with Ireland and you could see that drive in her.”

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nichola-fryday-with-the-mascots Fryday captaining Connacht in 2019. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Fryday had to leave Tullamore in 2018 when they were relegated from the AIL and she had stints with Galwegians, Old Belvedere and Blackrock before her move to Exeter last year to get a taste of life in the English Premier 15s.

Exeter boss Appleby’s interest was piqued while watching Ireland’s failed World Cup qualification campaign last September. Although it went poorly for the Irish side, Fryday stood out. Appleby was impressed by her accurate, physical ball-carrying and her relentless work-rate.

So she got in contact with Fryday through fellow Ireland international Laura Sheehan, now her team-mate in Exeter, and they arranged a move for after the November Tests.

That campaign included a player-of-the-match performance from Fryday against the US as she showcased the qualities that helped McWilliams to make her captain. Since joining Exeter, Fryday has made a big impression.

“She has delivered exactly what we hoped she would deliver,” says Appleby. “She’s an amazing player and it doesn’t surprise me that Greg is investing in her as the captain.

“Her off-field stuff is just phenomenal. She grew and grew before going away for the Six Nations.”

Many second rows peak in the second half of their careers and the expectation from those who have worked with Fryday is that the best is very much ahead.

The fact that she is now the leader of this Ireland group is key.

“She relished the captaincy with us,” says McClearn. “It gives her that confidence that the coaches have trust in her to lead that team. I think she’ll only get better with it.”

nichola-fryday Fryday has 22 caps for Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Appleby sees it along similar lines, recounting how Fryday herself seemed surprised at being named Ireland captain.

“I don’t think she even realises how good she can be,” says Appleby.

“She will embrace being captain and see this as another starting point. She will never think she’s the complete article and that’s the same for all the best leaders in the world.

“She’s a fantastic person who encapsulates everything Ireland will stand for and drive towards. She starts in minute one, leading the pace, and she finishes games at exactly the same pace.”

And those watching on from Tullamore, those who see Fryday’s photo up on the wall of the clubhouse, have no doubt that the best is yet to come.

“I remember that girl who showed up to that first training session,” says Hughes.

“If her mother hadn’t said anything to her, where might she be now? We’re incredibly proud of her. It’s her work ethic that got her where she is.”

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Murray Kinsella

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