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Ireland striker's journey back to international football after three ACL injuries by the age of 21

Rianna Jarrett has defied repeated setbacks to represent her country.

THE ABILITY TO persevere has defined Rianna Jarrett’s football career so far. Without it, she may never have played the game in the first place.

“When we were about six, my twin brother started playing for our local team in Wexford, North End United. For the first three or four weeks I went along to watch and I begged my mam to let me play too,” Jarrett explains.

“She was like, ‘no, football is not for girls, you can’t play’. But in the end I just bothered her about it so much that she eventually gave in. I played with the boys until there was a girls’ team set up and it just went from there.”

inpho_01253503 Ireland striker Rianna Jarrett. Source: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Her insistence on joining brother Jordan on the football pitch was the first example of the relentless perseverance which has characterised Rianna Jarrett’s journey from North End novice to senior international striker for the Republic of Ireland.

When she was introduced from the bench for her Ireland debut in a Cyprus Cup game against Italy in March 2016, those who knew what Jarrett was capable of expected it to be the first of many senior caps for the 21-year-old.

Two years and three months later, she’s still waiting to earn the second one. After replacing Megan Connolly in the 1-1 draw with the Italians in Larnaca, Jarrett’s left knee buckled beneath her just nine minutes later. A familiar feeling.

While the injury is seemingly becoming increasingly common, only a minority of sportspeople will encounter an ACL tear once in their careers. The unpleasant sensation that accompanies a snap of the anterior cruciate ligament is something Rianna Jarrett has now endured on three separate occasions — and all before her 22nd birthday.

The Wexford Youths star suffered the issue in her right knee in April 2013 and again in January 2015. Not long after recovering from the second occurrence, her left knee gave way in the early stages of her long-awaited first senior appearance for her country.

The repeated setbacks have robbed her of the best part of four years of her young career. She has subsequently been forced to watch from the sidelines as her club-mates savoured National League title wins, FAI Cup final appearances and Champions League campaigns. Her plans to increase her tally of international caps have also been put on hold.

RJ Jarrett coming to terms with her third ACL injury. Source: FAI TV

“The first time I ever did the injury it was the sorest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she says. “Whenever I see anybody going down with a knee injury now, that’s the first thing that goes through my head.

“When it happened the last time, I kind of had a feeling that it was the same injury again, but in my left knee this time. Obviously it was a big blow when I had the scan and found out. I wasn’t back playing very long from the previous injury so I was just coming back into my stride.”

Given the extent of her misfortune, Jarrett could have been forgiven if she considered waving the white flag. The routine of surgery, recovery and rehabilitation can make for a lonely existence for someone involved in a team sport, and while she admits that some days have been more difficult than others, calling it quits has never been an option.

“To be honest, if any injury like this does happen to you, I’d advise you to allow yourself those few days to feel sorry for yourself. It’s not until you’ve felt a bit sorry for yourself that you can actually move on and get over it,” she says.

“Then you can get your head down and start your recovery. You don’t want to be half-hearted and moping around during that process. Feel sorry for yourself at first, get that out of your system and then move on and get yourself into the right mindset.”

She adds: “I’ve played soccer since I was six and I’ve been involved in international teams since I was 15. I’m nearly 24 now. Obviously I have a life outside of football but the game is a huge part of my life for a lot of reasons.

Rianna Jarrett Jarrett in possession for Ireland against Ghana at the U17 World Cup in 2010 in Trinidad & Tobago. Source: James Crombie

“There are days when you’re slugging through the rehab but that’s only to be expected. Not every day is going to go perfectly. You have your down days, but I don’t think giving up was ever going to be a realistic possibility for me.

“I remember being in America a few years ago and chatting to a German girl who had the same injury. I had only done it once at that stage, and I said to her that if it ever happened again there’s no way I’d go back playing. But two more times later, here I am.”

On Wednesday, just a few days after scoring a hat-trick for Wexford Youths in their win against Kilkenny United — which took her tally to nine goals in seven appearances this season — Jarrett was named in Colin Bell’s squad for a double-header of qualifiers against Norway, which could be pivotal in Ireland’s bid to reach their first World Cup.

“I’m absolutely over the moon,” she says. “It’s always been a goal of mine to get back into the senior squad. If you asked me a couple of weeks ago if I thought it would come this soon, I would have said by all means no. It definitely took me by surprise.

“The knee is feeling strong. I’ve had no issues yet — touch wood — so I’ve just been tipping along, building up minutes every week. I’ve played 90 minutes a couple of times for Wexford, which is something I haven’t done consecutively in about three or four years.

“Wexford are winning and I’ve been scoring a few goals so I can’t have too many complaints. I’m not where I need to be at the minute, I can still get fitter and stronger, but I do feel like I’m getting there.”

Emma Hansberry, Claire O'Riordan and Rianna Jarrett celebrate after winning on penalties Emma Hansberry, Claire O'Riordan and Rianna Jarrett celebrate Wexford's 2015 FAI Cup win. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Irrespective of the role she’s handed, Jarrett admits that Friday’s game against Ireland’s Group 3 rivals at Tallaght Stadium [5.30pm] is likely to be an emotional occasion on a personal level. The return fixture will take place in Stavanger on Tuesday week.

“Every time you pull on the Ireland jersey it’s a feeling you can’t describe. Very few people get to experience it and I feel fortunate that I have and I continue to do so,” she says.

“The fact that it’s my first time back in the squad since doing my knee — and with it being in Dublin too — will make it an extra special occasion. Whether I make the matchday squad or not, I’ll just be glad to be back involved and hoping we get the right results.

“They’re two massive games to put us in a position that we’ve never been in as a country. That’s the priority first and foremost. I’ll look to impress with each training session and I’ll have a lot to learn from it, which I’m looking forward to.”

Despite being taken aback by her inclusion in the Ireland squad for the forthcoming fixtures, Jarrett didn’t need to submit a late request for time off from her full-time job with Equifax in Wexford. She was already due to fly out for a holiday on Tuesday before Colin Bell got in touch. The IT Carlow graduate was more than happy to amend her schedule.

“I never even dreamed that I’d be called in for these games,” she says. “I was supposed to be going to Gran Canaria instead. But I’m definitely not complaining. I’ve been out of the squad for enough games at this stage. There’ll be plenty of time for holidays later on.”

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Paul Dollery

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