In March, Ireland rugby star Heather O’Brien won her second Six
Nations medal. Here she tells Mary White of the sacrifices it took
TUCKED up in her sleeping bag on a makeshift bed composed of gym mats, Heather O’Brien grabs five hours of kip on the floor of her physio clinic.
It would have been just four only for her preempting the logistics of juggling playing for your country and running your own business.
Having flown into Dublin Airport at 11pm following a hard-hitting Six Nations game against Wales, O’Brien arrived back to her clinic in Mallow at 2.30am. She could have driven another 30 minutes home to her own bed, but at 7.30am she rolls off a gym mat and starts a full day’s work.
Captain Niamh Briggs is walking the beat as a garda in Limerick city on Paddy’s night too, but that’s the life they lead.
For Churchtown woman O’Brien, it’s not a sacrifice. She prefers it this way.
“For those few weeks of the Six Nations it is very difficult getting the timing right in terms of getting your sleep and sessions in. It takes a lot of juggling but I like being able to have a career. You can see that for retired male rugby players, or any professional athlete at that, it’s very hard for them to adjust to life after sport, but we have that straight away.
“There are some weeks you’re working 50-60 hours and trying to fit in gym sessions, club training and then Irish training at the weekend… and at times you just sleep on the floor!” she laughs.
O’Brien is one of those people whose laugh is infectious. It goes hand in hand with her personality, her energy for the game, and an incredible appetite to be the best she can be.
Pre Six Nations, O’Brien’s alarm beeps at 5.30am on rotten, winter mornings to make supervised gym sessions under Gordon Brett at the Tyco/Munster Rugby gym in Bishopstown, before heading out the Mallow Road to face a day of physical work tending to patients. The North Cork Physiotherapy Clinic opens late some evenings by the very nature of the job, and then there might be a club session before she’s finally home at 10pm to start all over again.
Scrambled eggs and omelettes have been a God send for late night dinners.
In January, she breaks it to her friends that she’ll see them at the start of April, and that’s the cycle. But, the reward is worth it.
In March, O’Brien won her second Six Nations medal and in doing so helped make history in playing her part in the first ever tournament double given the men’s victory over Scotland the day before.
It was much warmer this time out than their Grand Slam win in 2013 in a freezing cold, mud bath outside Milan, when Claire Molloy found herself on the sideline under mounds of coats, being force fed hot food to counteract the hypothermia setting in. But, there was another difference too. Head coach Philip Doyle, captain Fiona Coghlan, Ireland’s most capped female rugby player Lynne Cantwell and Grace Davitt had all retired since the 2015 Rugby World Cup in France last summer.
Doyle had announced his departure prior to the World Cup, but it wasn’t until December that the IRFU made the announcement that Cork Con coach Tom Tierney would take over.
It meant the squad would have just four weeks to prepare. For just two of those, the Irish 7s team trained with them. So, putting it into perspective, Ireland won a Six Nations with just two training weekends with every squad member present.
It’s remarkable when you think of it, but 30-year-old O’Brien knew late last winter it was possible despite all the well documented departures.
She remembers because herself and Ailis Egan sat down and spoke about it.
“We said this could be a year we could take this. We didn’t want to just find our feet because we knew ourselves that we had it in us. We’d come off some good performances in France and we felt aggrieved after the last two games at the World Cup (the semi-final against eventual champions England and the play-off against the hosts) and we felt we needed to just get back out on the pitch and right those wrongs. We wanted to go off the back of that momentum and go straight for it,” said the number 8.
The French however would come back to haunt them in Ashbourne RFC.
“It was so frustrating from a player’s point-of-view because we’d so many chances to win. It felt like de-ja-vu because we’d chances to win against France last year. We’d come so close, and this was another time we’d let it slip.”
In the closing stages of the game, newcomer Katie Fitzhenry failed to spot an open player on the wing inches from the try-line, and although it’s a series of collective errors that cost you a game, the Leinster player’s error was unfortunately a telling one.
Ireland were devastated. The chance of a Six Nations title was very much becoming something intangible in the distance now, but up stepped captain Niamh Briggs to land the winning score against England in the last minute of the game, and Ireland were back on track.
All hung in the balance going into the final weekend, with Ireland having to beat Scotland by 27 points to deny last year’s champions the French.
Leading 37-3 at half-time in Glasgow, Tierney and Co knew they had the points in the bag to take the title, but O’Brien wasn’t settling.
“With 15 minutes left, Claire (Molloy) turned to me and said ‘We can enjoy this now’ and I said, ‘No, no, we’re not done yet!’ she laughs.
“I was antsy that game. I was trying to keep people focused. We knew we’d the points but I knew that something could click for Scotland at some point and it did. I was just programmed to keep going. It wasn’t until the second last score that I actually started to relax.
“I was afraid we’d start throwing the ball around when it wasn’t on, so as an older player it was my job to make sure we stuck to the plan.
“It’s hard to just go out with a figure in your head. You can’t play to a figure or a number, so we’d spoken about being ruthless, which we wouldn’t have been before. We knew going out that we’d to score a decent point difference and being ruthless was the only way we were going to achieve that objective.
“It was a case that if we’re clinical and ruthless, we can win a Six Nations, but if we’re complacent or let our standards drop, we won’t.”
In the process, O’Brien crossed the whitewash for her second try of the campaign, while UCC PE student Alison Miller helped run Ireland’s tally to 73-3 with a hat-trick of tries.
That night, Ireland ended their celebrations in Copper Face Jacks in Dublin as the lads were celebrating at the Four Seasons. Their paths would cross at lunch the following afternoon as the ladies were treated at the prestigious Dublin hotel by the IRFU. It was suggested both squads would venture to Smyth’s to continue the celebrations, and Seán O’Brien and Fiona Hayes’ dance-off was the highlight of the night — with the Glen youth worker coming out on top hands down.
Kindly, the Irish lads footed the bill.
But, it was only fair. Claire Molloy had already caught a 6am flight to return to work in England just hours after winning her second Six Nations medal, and 24 hours later O’Brien would be back to the grindstone in Mallow.
Hopefully next spring she won’t need to spend the night on gym mats for the cause and roll out of her sleeping bag to work as Ireland bid to win their first ever back-to-back title.
But, then again, that’s life, and O’Brien wouldn’t change it for the world.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015