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'It was the right time to have ownership of my life again'

Paula Fitzpatrick became the latest member of the Ireland women’s rugby team to step back from the sport to seek new challenges in her life.

MUCH LIKE MANY of her now former team-mates, Paula Fitzpatrick stepped away from rugby quietly. No airs, graces or retirement swansong. No fuss, just exit stage left and move on with life.

She became the latest of that golden generation — Philip Doyle’s team that caused a seismic shock by beating New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup — to vacate the green jersey last March. Although nobody was aware at the time. 

Paula Fitzpatrick Fitzpatrick made her debut back in 2012. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

In their inter-pro team announcement in August, Leinster said Fitzpatrick had ‘taken time out of the game to run an Arctic marathon’. That she did, and the Valentia Island triathlon, but her break from rugby was permanent. 

“I’m too old,” she laughs. “I still feel fit and able to play international rugby, it was just that sense of trying other things.”

After making her debut against France back in 2012, Fitzpatrick had given her all to rugby. She had played at two World Cups, won Grand Slams, Six Nations and captained her country. All the while juggling her nascent career as a Sports Science and Strength Conditioning lecturer at Carlow IT. Even at 33, it was simply time to move on.

“I was in the bubble for a long time,” Fitzpatrick continues. “When you’re in it, you don’t think you’re missing out on other things in life because you’re so committed, you’re so into it. It’s full-on, even as an amateur.

“Every decision you make — whether it’s food, training, social events — is all based around rugby. I just thought it was the right time to try new things and basically have ownership of my life again. That’s been really refreshing.”

Fitzpatrick’s last game in green was in the final round of Six Nations action last March, as Adam Griggs’ side suffered defeat to England in Coventry, before finishing her time with St Mary’s by helping the club to the All-Ireland Division Two title. Not a bad way to go out.

And so a new chapter opened. Fitzpatrick had more time and opportunity to do whatever she pleased without being restricted by training schedules or match preparation. A triathlon was ticked off the list in June and then the Tallaght native set her sights on a return to hockey. 

Having started playing with Glenanne Hockey Club as a teenager, Fitzpatrick was keen to get back into the sport she developed a passion for during her formative years, while it would also help fill some of the void rugby left. 

It didn’t take long for Fitzpatrick to make her impact felt in the green of Glenanne again, as a hat-trick in the second league match of the season firmly announced her return, with the Tallaght-based club currently sitting fourth in Leinster Division 1.

“I’m really enjoying it,” she says.

Paula Fitzpatrick celebrates scoring a late try Scoring a try against Japan at the 2017 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’re going well which obviously helps but it’s great fun. There are definitely similarities between the two sports, in terms of dressing room atmosphere and just the way hockey and rugby can bring people together as a community.

“Just as Mary’s was, Glenanne would be very family-orientated and they have been very welcoming. It has been refreshing as while we want to do well, it’s not quite as serious as being involved with Ireland in rugby. It’s different but a nice change.”

A triathlon and return to hockey are just two things Fitzpatrick has ticked off her list. Open water swimming and an ultra-endurance race are ‘stuff I always wanted to do and part of the reason for giving up rugby was to get the chance to do these things when I’m still relatively young and fit.’

Instead of lining out for Ireland in Friday’s Six Nations game against Scotland, Fitzpatrick’s weekends are now very different, with her focus now fixed on trying to get Glenanne up into the play-offs for a chance to qualify for the EHYL Hockey League next season.

“I did miss hockey,” she admits. “A lot of the girls I would have grown up with, so it’s great to be back with them playing. Obviously, I miss the Ireland dressing room because nothing can replace that but I compartmentalise things quite well — when I’m in something, I’m in that and all my focus is now on things other than rugby.

It’s nice to watch the girls play, enjoy it and support them, rather than miss it.

One door has closed, but many more have opened for Fitzpatrick post-rugby.

“You can’t play rugby forever, it’s just too attritional,” she adds. “But a sport like hockey, you don’t have to put a limit on it. I don’t tend to look too far ahead. I just want to enjoy it and certainly I’m loving it at the moment. 

“I’m loving the freedom of opportunity and there are loads of different things and events I’d like to do. Just find new challenges, that’s my goal.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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