I am Jenny Murphy the Ireland rugby player. Or that’s who I was until very recently and hope to be again.
It’s no sacrifice to play for your country. None at all. But I missed this year’s Six Nations.
Just couldn’t go back so soon… had to come up for air.
Probably should explain from the beginning.
I only took up rugby at age 19 having moved to London. In my first proper match, for St Mary’s University against Portsmouth, I ran around the ruck and dived on the ball. My first try followed moments later only because I was tackled over the line.
I would have kept going.
Run Jenny run.
Jack Baird, my coach at Richmond, used to stand behind the posts literally directing my every move, “Go left Jenny, drop deep… Jenny, you’re offside again!”
They put me at lock, then flanker before being moved to 15 for the Exiles against Ireland.
This was 2012 – a warm-up for the Six Nations – it was my third competitive game as a back.
”I've always been a fiercely competitive person and the physicality of rugby suits me. I seek the contact.
Ireland were destroying us, so I decided to make my presence felt, anything to postpone our next awkward gathering under the posts.
I still think it was a good tackle.
The touchline denied Nikki Caughey space to run around me. I didn’t hit her high. In the force of impact I went above her shoulders as we crashed into the Ashbourne mud.
Me landing on Nikki. She was hurt.
The referee emptied his lungs into the whistle.
“Apologise to her!”
“Apologise to her, now!
The Ireland coach let out a roar. Goose (aka Philip Doyle) was furious. Jogging back into position, I saw him thundering down the touchline. God, this is how it is. My international career over before it begins.
Turns out Goose was roaring at the ref for making me apologise. The general gist;
”"She's a f**king rugby player! You made her apologise for doing what we want her to do?! If it's a high tackle sin-bin her. Don't speak to her like that. Ever!"
Goose was always fiercely protective of his players. But this is what happens to women in sport, at some stage, at all levels.
I cringe when I hear how female athletes are described. A masculine appropriate sport is about strength and power: he tackles like a beast.
That’s bullshit. A woman can possess those traits.
I went back to London and my PE studies at St Mary’s. Oh well. I’ll keep bouncing between rugby at Richmond, GAA with Parnells (we won an intermediate All-Ireland that year) and soccer.
A few days later Gemma Crowley, the Ireland manager, called me. Oh no, I immediately presumed, Nikki’s medical bill! I was working behind the bar at Strawberry Hill golf club in Twickenham for pennies. This is a nightmare.
I was very naive. Gemma was inviting me into Ireland camp for the Six Nations. Still, the message over that weekend was clear: “We’ll keep an eye on you but, for now, you’re too raw.”
That was devastating to hear because after this first taste of international sport I was addicted. Training alongside Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell, Joy Neville, Niamh Briggs and Grace Davitt was a constant learning experience, an inch closer to wearing the green jersey, to singing AmhrA?n na bhFiann.
”This was a powerful group of rugby players, ravenous for actual success after many years
surviving off the odd moral victory.
Add Sophie Spence, Claire Molloy, Paula Fitzpatrick, Maz Reilly, Nora Stapleton, Ailis Egan, Larissa Muldoon, Ashleigh Baxter, Gillian Bourke and Ali Miller for women who will always have “Grand Slam” and “beat New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup” etched beside their names.
I’d tumbled head-first into a uniquely special moment in the history of women’s sport in Ireland.
I wanted to be part of this group more than anything else.
There was a Sunday session before we broke up and Helen Brosnan, the starting outhalf, had a horrible injury. Back to London I went, back behind the bar in Strawberry Hill chatting rugby with the golfers, when another call came.
Gemma again. I got the call up to the squad. Bridge night at Strawberry Hill was interrupted by the weird Irish girl screaming the house down.
”For the England game that season, some of the male regulars from Strawberry Hill showed up with tricolours to support their barmaid and not the Red Roses.
I have a dozen stories like that.
I didn’t play for Ireland this season. Got concussed with Leinster, for the second time in three months, but that’s not why I missed the Six Nations.
I’m 28 now, and should be at the peak of my powers, I certainly understand the game better, I’m confident going onto the field against any opponent, against any team.
”But I've been at a low ebb since last year's World Cup. Because of how it all turned out.
After reaching the semi-finals in 2014 and with so many of the girls retiring we had the highest expectations.
We finished eighth following defeats to France, Australia and Wales. That has been tough to swallow.
It gets easier.
I still tell every young girl I meet that if you ever get the chance to play for your country, in any sport, give it your full commitment, because nothing compares to that feeling. Nothing.
Find someone, anyone who has done it and see how they are unable to trivialise the experience.
That said, I feel horrible writing this but playing for Ireland last year was enormously frustrating. Just so disappointing.
The Six Nations came around too soon.
I just needed to come up for air. Needed to get a job!
It really does get easier. Playing club rugby with Old Belvedere helps.
”Getting on with my professional life, actually having a career, helps too. It's difficult to do that as an Irish rugby player.
Sorry, let me clarify: as a female Irish rugby player.
Women’s rugby is still an amateur sport but that’s changing globally. Small steps. The Australia Rugby Union’s new CEO Raelene Castle (a woman, and a Kiwi at that) is overseeing equal entry pay for all players.
Sorry, let me clarify: male and female Aussies starting on the same money. Sevens rugby Down Under is on another level.
The embryonic stage of equality in my sport has passed. The woman’s game is growing faster than any other area. The World Cup proved as much.
We can see it happening.
I was in Australia with the Ireland Sevens squad two years ago and there was a fleet of sponsored BMWs in the car park. I thought, “The men are in the off season?”
“They are,” was the instant response from an Aussie player. “Those cars belong to us. We’ve earned them.”
I was annoyed with myself for thinking they belonged to the guys. They had earned them.
But my reality, as an amateur sports person in Ireland, meant at some stage I had to start building a career outside the game.
I’m working with a start-up company called Pep Talk. Last year I did an event with its founders Michelle Fogarty, who competed internationally in taekwondo, and Bernard Brogan, who plays a bit of ball for Dublin.
Pep Talk is about “Work Place Well Being” using experts and data. I am loving the challenge and versatility of my role. Going in and getting the pulse of a company be it through fitness, nutrition, mindset, financial and then improving each facet.
Yes, as a qualified PE teacher, Michelle and Bernard have taken a chance on me. I love the creative side of the job. All this would have been difficult to delve into if I had tunnel vision on the Six Nations. That said, with Bernard being a footballer and amateur, they actively encourage me to get back playing for Ireland next season. If that happens, they will work around my schedule.
Pep Talk really feels like the start of a career.
”My problem with teaching PE was having to almost force some kids to do what I used to love doing. Not everyone is going to be sports mad like me.
I am from Brannockstown in Kildare so GAA was an early fit. I was a centre half in football (soccer). Played for Peamount United as a teenager when I was lucky to share a pitch with some Irish legends.
Marked Cora Staunton in a club game (yes, soccer) and played a season with Katie Taylor and Louise Quinn, who is now at Arsenal.
It’s a small pond, women in Irish sport, we cross paths.
But rugby is the game I was meant to play and way back in 2013 the Irish women’s team had a secret. There was an inner belief. The girls knew they were capable of doing something nobody else had contemplated. Ok, our coaches Goose and Greg McWilliams, suspected but our family and friends didn’t see it coming.
We certainly took the French and English by surprise.
But amongst ourselves, we knew we could do the Grand Slam.
Honestly, I just wanted to get selected!
Come 2014 we believed we could win the World Cup. It took a wonderful England side to stop us.
”This time around, at the 2017 tournament, I was riddled with the worst illness any athlete
Being injured for 16 months didn’t help. I was in the gym doing circuits when something pinged in my back. It was uncomfortable, but I finished the session. I could hardly walk up the stairs. The physio found nothing, so I had to do a fitness test. My hands wouldn’t go above my shoulders.
The road back wasn’t easy. I finally returned for last year’s Six Nations and scored the winning try on a horribly wet night in Scotland. The girls knew I didn’t want to make a big deal about it but every one of them looked me in the eye before kick-off and hugged me afterwards.
The rest has been a bonus. I’m not going to flog the World Cup. It happened and as much as 2014 was a special experience, 2017 was painful.
I really want to wear the green jersey again.
Ask any elite athlete. from the NFL line-backer to the golfer chasing Majors, and they will say the same – you have to love what you do. There is so much fear and graft that you must find moments of joy.
When the World Cup ended, I needed time away from rugby. That was when I realised I needed to come up for air, I had to do something else for a while.
You see, everything is put on hold if you’re an amateur sports person playing at an elite level.
Your social life is with your teammates. They become your quasi-family. They are very good surrogates! Partners, parents, everyone really, must come to me when I am rehabbing, playing, sleeping or travelling.
All the birthdays and anniversaries are missed for a very good reason. Whenever I bump into Lynne or Grace or any of the girls the memories flood back. We made history together.
Nothing needs to be said.
I love that.
It’s no sacrifice to play for Ireland. But I couldn’t go back so soon. Now I can’t. About 30 seconds into a recent club game for Old Belvedere I heard my ACL go “pop”. I’ve been down this road before. I know the way back.
I am Jenny Murphy the Ireland rugby player. Or that’s who I was until very recently and hope to be again.
I’d like to bring you into the changing room after we beat the Black Ferns in 2014. Just so you could see us laughing, screaming, singing – all at once! – because we had just played our opponents to a standstill.
Once upon a time we beat the best in the world.
I have to keep chasing that feeling.
No sacrifice at all.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
This all began with a contribution from Jamie Heaslip, one of the greatest servants to Irish rugby, with The End is Really The Beginning Part 1 and Part 2. You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.