“I WASN’T ALLOWED near the forwards as I couldn’t kick the ball over the ball. I played corner-back and was a bit of a pest. I was good without the ball, blocking down shots and winning possession. The real trouble started when I had the ball.”
With that background in Galway Ladies football, Claire Molloy was always likely to make a good flanker. Now a pivotal member of the Ireland Women’s team, Molloy’s first sporting forays involved chasing All-Ireland glory. She played football with boys’ teams until she was 14 and called into her county’s under-age set-up. Molloy played alongside Galway’s two-time All-Star Annette Clarke and had one shot capturing the Brendan Martin Cup in Croke Park.
“We got to the final in 2005 and ran into a great Cork team. That was the beginning of their years of dominance,” recalled Molloy. While The Reblettes set off on an unprecedented winning streak, the Galwegian headed to Wales soon after to pursue a career in medicine.
It was during her college studies that Molloy fully embraced rugby. On summer trips back home she turned out for Galwegians. She was asked to head along for a training session with Connacht on a Tuesday and drafted in to an inter-pro match that weekend. Her provincial outings, and impressive outings for Bristol, soon led to a trial with Ireland. Inconveniently for Molloy, the Irish scout had watched her line out at outside centre during an injury crisis. She told TheScore.ie:
I hadn’t played there before; I didn’t know what a switch was. I knew if they had the ball that I was to hit them. The Wales team manager had seen me play for Bristol, though, and put in a word for me. I got another trial at flanker but that didn’t go much better. I should’ve been sin-binned for either of my first contributions. I pulled someone back as they were chasing a grubber kick and was told it would have been a yellow in a full game. I then nearly decapitated Lynne Cantwell with a tackle. That’s slightly easy as she’s a short lady.”
Paraphrasing the Irish coaches, Molloy was told ‘good effort but you’ve been dropped’. It took an injury to provincial teammate Carol Staunton to offer the flanker her Test match chance. She came off the bench against France and made a two-minute cameo away to Italy. Her international career was underway.
The past three seasons have seen Molloy develop into one of her country’s best players. In 2012 — a year ‘the building blocks were laid for the Grand Slam’ — she was named Ireland Women’s Player of the Year. Personal glory was augmented with the Six Nations championship as Ireland beat all-comers.
Confidence remains high in the Irish camp despite last weekend’s 17-10 defeat to England. “They outplayed us on the pitch,” Molloy admitted, “so there is no point lingering on sin-binnings or decisions that didn’t go our way. We didn’t change our game-plan quickly enough when it wasn’t working. We had no ball in hand to be dangerous. We defended so well from the start until the end. I didn’t even realise we only had 13 players at the end as we were flat out keeping England at bay and hoping to snatch it on the counter-attack. There is a mutual respect between the two teams and I won’t deny that England deserved it.”
The loss at Twickenham was Molloy’s first outing at a marquee stadium. It will be quickly followed, next Saturday, with a home tie at the Aviva Stadium against Italy. “There had been murmurs that, as Grand Slam winners, we might get a chance to play at the Aviva,” said Molloy. “We looked at the fixtures and thought, with nothing on for a while at the ground after next weekend, that it might be the Italy game. We were delighted when it was confirmed.
I heard there were 240,000 people watching our game against England on RTÉ Two. Many of those people may never have seen a women’s game before so the exposure is great. It is time for us to show the fans our creativity on the pitch. We were predictable in the last two games but we’re a better side than that. What better stage, and what better surface, to show what we can do.”
Ireland must beat Italy — a team they laboured to a 6-3 victory over last season — at home to have a chance of retaining their trophy away to France. “We can’t underestimate Italy. They put up their biggest ever score on Scotland last month. I watched them against Wales and they scored two tries from rolling mauls. They are complete athletes and dogged competitors.”
Molloy is backing a new initiative by Connacht Rugby, which will be launched at the home game versus Treviso this evening, called Strength in Numbers. Its aim is to promote the women’s game and encourage participation in the sport. Molloy said, “A lot has changed, for the better, at Connacht since I rocked up for training and played for them four days later.
“They have spread the word, and developed the game, across the province. It helps when you have role models like Alison Miller, who was given an opportunity at Connacht and is now one of the best wingers in the game. Apart from the competitive and fitness element to the game, rugby is a social sport and great craic. There is a real family spirit and great camaraderie in women’s rugby.”