Echo Sport Replay: Fitzpatrick recalls greatest period for Ireland international women’s rugby

By Stephen Leonard

TWO Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and a fourth place finish at the World Cup that included a historic triumph over New Zealand were all served up in the three seasons running from 2013 to ’15 as Ireland women’s international rugby basked in the glory of unquestionably its greatest period.

Making her senior international debut in 2012, Paula Fitzpatrick from Tallaght played a key role in many of those astonishing feats and spoke to The Echo about her great memories when competing in the green jersey as well as the huge challenges that came with it.

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Tallaght’s Paula Fitzpatrick played a huge role in what was unquestionably the most successful period for Ireland women’s rugby

From struggling to find her place in the Ireland set-up, the physical toll of which very nearly brought a premature end to her rugby career, to her part in the team’s giant-killing display against the Black Ferns in the 2014 World Cup and the Six Nations Championship glory that followed a year later, Fitzpatrick’s story is one of sheer tenacity.

Indeed the Kingswood woman has never been afraid to take on new challenges, something that was evident long before her introduction to rugby and which remains part of her make-up to this day.

“I would have played a bit of everything from badminton, basketball, volleyball, GAA and later on, I had a go at cricket, anything really that involved a ball and running around” laughed Fitzpatrick.

“My uncle Gerry McNamara was heavily involved in Glenanne Hockey Club. I started hockey in school and then when I was about 15, I joined Glenanne and I'm still there now and looking forward  to going back training with them again soon. I've made a lot of lifelong friends there.

“I started rugby with DCU when I was at college. I absolutely loved it. The whole team aspect of it. You can't do anything on your own in rugby, you absolutely need everyone else.

“Then Pat Crawford from St Mary's [RFC] gave me a ring and asked if a couple of us from DCU would go down and have ago at a couple of club sessions and I ended up playing with them.

“Back in, I think, 2009 we won the Division Two league and promotion to Division One.

Ireland captain Paula Fitzpatrick 2 1

Paula Fitzpatrick

“That was a huge achievement for us because we worked really hard in Division Two and we came through some really tight battles. We had aspirations as a team of being in the AIL. That's where we wanted to be.

“There was definitely a sense in Irish rugby at the time that if you weren't playing for a Division One team then you wouldn't be seen by the Leinster or Ireland coaches.

“When I went to Mary's, I was obviously a little bit tall and broad and I went in at second row. It wasn't until later that I went to 10 and when I ended up going for trials with Leinster I was 10 at the time.

“But at the time, Shannon Houston, who was an amazing Irish player, originally from Canada, was the resident 10 and I was kind of learning from her.

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Paula Fitzpatrick

“And it was when Dan Van Zyl became coach of Leinster, he said, 'look, I want my best players to be on the pitch and I don't see you being on the pitch as a 10' so he asked if I'd been willing to convert to hooker.

“So I ended up very quickly trying to learn the dark arts of the front row and I started for Leinster at hooker in 2011. From there I ended up coming into the Irish squad at hooker.

“My senior international debut in 2012, that was mental. It was brilliant. It was against France and it was down in Pau which is like a stronghold of French rugby.

“I came on as replacement hooker and I remember on one of my first balls being absolutely dump tackled by, not one, but two French players. That was my welcome to French rugby.

“But I remember just absolutely wanting more. I just wanted to improve more and more and be worthy of that stage and be worthy of playing against the calibre of players I was up against.

“In the 2013 season I had been training with the squad all the way up to the Grand Slam, but I was actually having an issue with my neck having gone from 10 to playing front row.

“I ended up having to go and see a spine surgeon and initially they said I needed spine surgery. It's obviously not what somebody wants to hear.

“But it ended up that surgery wasn't necessary at the time which was brilliant. I was still in a bad way and I was wasn't able to train.

“So that final game of the Grand Slam in Italy, I ended up going over with my friends Orla Fitzsimons and Sharon Lynch and we watched that game from the stands.

“It was such a weird experience because, just a couple of weeks before we were training with the squad and we were very much right in the thick of things.

“But regardless of whether you were involved or not, it was just so brilliant watching the team do what they did.

“I had missed out on that year, but it meant that I was fully right when I went back in.

“I had had a lot of help from the physios and advice from the surgeons. Those things really helped me out because there had been talk of knocking it on the head.

“We didn't know for a long time if I was going to get back or not, but it ended up that the advice was, 'look you can go back playing, but not at front row.'

“I had spent most of my club career at 10 and then I converted to hooker and then I was being told that you're going to have to move again to back row.

“I hadn't played back row at that level and I wasn't sure if I would be selected. Back row is a hugely competitive position and there were, at the time a huge amount of amazingly talented people that were playing there, the likes of Joy Neville, Siobhan Fleming, Claire Molloy. So you kind of look around and say 'am I going to get a chance here?'

“But from my point of view I was getting the chance to play rugby again, which I didn't know if that was going to be possible or not, so I just felt lucky.

“I did end up being selected and making the squad for the 2014 season for the Six Nations and then the World Cup in France.

“For the World Cup, our first game was against the USA and I came on at Number 6 in that game and then I ended up being selected for the start of the New Zealand game.

“When we were at the World Cup we were notified [about team selection] by email so we all rushed to our rooms to check our email.

“I remember checking my email and seeing that I was starting that game and I remember my first thought was that I felt so bad because Siobhan Fleming was on the bench and she was such a hero for me.

“She was one of the fittest and hard working people you'd ever meet and I remember just feeling terrible that she didn't get in because of me.

“But she was so good about it. I went to speak with her about it that evening and she was just so gracious.

“The day of the game I just remember a sense that everyone was just really up for it.

“Not even much had been said that day. It wasn't even a nervous feeling that day, it just more nervous excitement.

“We were such underdogs going into it, we really had nothing to lose. All the pressure was on New Zealand really.

“They were four-time World Cup winners and were really expected to go all the way.

“The Irish really love having that underdog tag. With it being in France it was quite easy to travel there and so many Irish people came over to support us.

“But what I also remember from that game was giving away two penalties which I believed were going to lose us the game. I remember thinking that I really had to make up for a couple of things.

“You always remember the bad things I suppose, but luckily enough they didn't end up costing us the game and we won.

“It was just absolute elation. I just remember looking at everyone's faces and seeing how much it meant to them.

“Looking around at so many people who had put in so many years of work, both players and management, all of the former Irish players who had gone through the tough times, and I remember how amazing it was for the team to have gone on and done something like this.

“I suppose when you're involved in women's sport, generally you're not used to people following your game and I think it was only when we came home that we really saw how big it was, how many people had followed it and had really gotten invested in the team.

“Prior to the tournament, I'd say top four was our target, but that was knowing that New Zealand were in our group and it was a tough group.

“It was not so much the final positioning, it was more our performance in the semi-final that we were disappointed with.

“We ended up playing England in the semi-final and obviously England are a top team, but if we had put in our best performance and then lost, you could accept it a bit more.

“Fourth place was disappointing, but I suppose looking back on it, when you look at the bigger picture, it was still an amazing World Cup and one that I definitely look back on with fond memories.

“There were a lot of retirements after the World Cup so it was kind of a new team in 2015 and new management as well.

“We ended up missing out against France for the Grand Slam but won the Championship.

“I remembered it being a situation of points coming into the Scotland game, the last game.

“I think we had to maybe beat Scotland by about 20 points and I remember we were very much focused on getting the win first, making sure we focused on the basics.

“We ended up winning the game by about 70 points in the end. Everybody was just really really focused and on it at the time.

“I ended up being drug-tested that day so I ended up missing a lot of the celebrations in the dressing room, but it didn't matter. We had won the title.

“I went to Toulouse [to play club rugby] in the 2015/2016 season.

“We knew the 2017 World Cup was coming to Dublin so the idea was to try and get as much experience and development as we could, try and improve that skill level.

Also to get that cultural experience. I went over with Heather O'Brien. Heather had quite good French, but I had studied German so I ended up going over with little or no French.

“They called me the smiley one over there because I ended up smiling and nodding whenever anyone talked to me. I had no idea what was going on for the first three months, but after the first three months I felt I was getting the hang of things.

“It didn't end up being a successful 2017 Six Nations, but we did beat France in Donnybrook which was another big high.

“With the 2014 World Cup I remember looking back on it with fond memories both on and off the pitch, but with the 2017 World Cup it was just a feeling of such disappointment and missed opportunity and frustration.

“I think the one shining thing was from the crowds' perspective, I think it was an amazing tournament to be held in Ireland.

“But there were just so many things were not right off the pitch even before we went into the competition. It just wasn't a good atmosphere. There was just so much disruption and uncertainty about a lot of things and miscommunication with players. Looking back on it now, it was never going to go well.”

Fitzpatrick was to play her final match for Ireland against England in the 2018 Six Nations although she was not even certain at the time that it would prove her swansong.

“I wasn't 100 per cent sure. To be honest, I played that last season as if every game was my last because, at the time, I wasn't enjoying it the way I had been in previous seasons.

“A lot of the players I had grown up with in the team had retired. There were amazing new players coming through, but I still felt that legacy [from the 2017 World Cup] of not doing things right was still there and I didn't feel it was a positive environment, not through any fault of the players.

“I just felt that you only get one life and you should be enjoying things as much as you can so I decided to take a break for a year anyway to try other things, other sports and other events. I ended up enjoying that stuff and continuing on with that.”

Now back playing hockey with Glenanne, Fitzpatrick is looking forward to the start of a new season.

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Paula Fitzpatrick (right) celebrates scoring one of two tries for Ireland against Japan in the 2017 World Cup

“I think we have a good chance of doing well and we're really looking forward to it. There was a really nice atmosphere in the team last year and it's really nice to be in a team environment again because that's what I would have missed from rugby.

“I don't miss waking up on a Monday morning feeling like you've been hit by a truck, but you do miss the bit of banter you'd have with the players. They were good times.”

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