The newest star in Irish rugby, Leah Lyons, speaks to Mary White ahead of tomorrow’s crunch tie with Wales about her love of the game, family beginnings with the Fermoy Lionesses and that try against France
IN the shadow of the Principality Stadium tomorrow, tears will surely drip onto the turf at Cardiff Arms Park.
Wales will take to the field for the first time since the death of their former teammate, Elli Norkett. The Ospreys’ star died a fortnight ago in a car crash on the A4109 Inter Valley Road between Banwen and Glynneath, aged just 20.
Her sudden death united a nation, a rugby sisterhood and brotherhood, and tomorrow Wales will stand together. For country. For Elli.
Welch lock Siwan Lillicrap spoke last week of how Norkett text her before every game – ‘smash it when you get on’ she’d write – but this time round there’ll be no text. Life, and death, will be very raw for fourth-placed Wales, and Ireland will need every ounce of composure not to be swept away in the emotion that will descend on Cardiff at 11.30am.
Norkett was the youngest player to feature in the 2013 Women’s Rugby World Cup in France, aged 15, and just as she was a rising star across the water, so too is one of Cork’s very own, Ballyhooly woman Leah Lyons.
With 50 minutes gone in Donnybrook a fortnight ago, Ireland trailed France 3-7, but the second Lyons got her hands on the ball from a line-out encroaching on the French whitewash, she knew what way it was going to play out. Head down, ball down.
The try from the 22-year-old prop, now converted to hooker, saw Tom Tierney’s side take the lead (8-7). They never looked back. In front of 3,886 fans, Ireland claimed their third successive win of the 2017 Six Nations campaign to sit top of the table with world champions England.
It was a long way off from the bruising battles she had with her twin brother Kyran in the back garden. Running back and forth, they’d practice hand offs until the cows came home. Her older sister, Adina (23), would join in every now and then, but Leah was always there.
From the age of six she tackled, rucked and mucked it out with the boys’ team in Fermoy. Her father Michael coached on the sideline, and every now then there was even a case of mistaken identity.
“One time we were playing in Highfield,” Leah laughs – her shy demeanor far removed from her driven on-pitch persona.
“Kyran and I were both wearing the same scrumcap, so there was no way really to tell us a part. He had the ball and two lads had him caught around the neck and they wouldn’t let go. I got really annoyed and went for one of them and drove him back about 10 metres and just walked away.
“Dad was on the sideline and the referee said ‘take him off there for five minutes and just have a chat with him’, and poor Kyran was protesting his innocence that it wasn’t him that took the guy on! But, most of the lads I played against didn’t even know it was a girl under the scrumcap.”
For the following six seasons, Lyons plied her trade with the boys, before moving to the Fermoy Lionesses – the female arm of Fermoy Rugby Club her parents helped nurture in the early days.
At the same time, the Munster women’s team were taking to the pitch in Fermoy once a week, training under the guidance of Fiona Steed and Kate McCarthy. In their cohort were the likes of Joy Neville, Fiona Coghlan, Laura Guest, Chris Fanning and Niamh Briggs, and Lyons relished watching every minute of every session. Her mother Nadine made food to warm up their limbs afterwards, and Lyons was in awe of a group of leaders long before they rewrote the history of women’s rugby in Ireland.
The hunger to learn was always there, but an avenue to truly progress came at an opportune time for Lyons, aged 19. She had been impressing on the underage Munster scene for some years, and Highfield RFC coach Norita Duggan had been keeping a close eye on her progression too. An injury to one of Duggan’s props saw her in muddle for a replacement ahead of a league final against Old Belvedere, and a call to Nadine in Ballyhooly to see if Leah would opt for a dual status with Highfield to get her out fix, turned into one of the best signings of the season.
“The timing was right. It was a decision that needed to be made, and although it was hard to leave Fermoy, I had to look at the bigger picture. I needed to go up a division if I was going to progress, and in Division 1 you’re playing against more experienced players and internationals, so it was a natural progression.
“My first game was a final against Old Belvo. I came in on a scrum and I remember seeing Ailis Egan opposite me! It was terrifying because of her calibre, but this was the level I wanted to be at, so I gradually came into it and found my feet.
“Highfield have so many people who put massive amounts of information into your head, so there was a lot of learning to do. There wasn’t a huge gap in the divisions, but you have to play a lot smarter in Division 1. There’s always someone faster, stronger or more experienced than you, so that makes you constantly up your game.
“The players around you teach you so much too… the likes of ‘Guesty’ (Laura Guest) and Heather O’Brien, who’ve been there and done it.”
Another Highfield RFC woman, Marie Barrett, and former Munster coach turned RTE sports pundit, Fiona Steed, were two players that inspired Lyons in a different way however.
“Their input to me progressing was really important, because they basically told me what I needed to do to improve and get better. I needed to hear that,” Lyons admits.
Interprovincial glory with Munster followed, and despite a shoulder injury which required surgery, Lyons had impressed so much in the 2015 season, that it was inevitable that a call would come from head coach Tom Tierney.
Her debut came in the 2016 November autumn series against Canada, England and Wales, when a suspected head concussion to Cliodhna Moloney saw Lyons thrown in at hooker. Since, she’s started every Six Nations game this season, and added her second international try against France.
Tomorrow Lyons will suit up again, putting on her gear, from left to right, as is her match day ritual.
Downtime today after the captains’ run will involve jigsaws, card games and a spat of Bananagrams, which Leinster’s Ailis Egan is the force to be reckoned with. But, come tomorrow morning, Lyons will sit herself on the team bus, half-way up on the right-hand side, against the window. Through her headphones, ‘Car Radio’ by Twenty One Pilots will play, and Lyons herself will go into autopilot.
This is her zone. This is her time, and she’s thriving in it.
* Ireland V Wales will be broadcast live on RTE 2 at 11.30am tomorrow.
March 10, 2017