IF YOU HAVE attended any of Ireland Women’s rugby matches in Ashbourne over the past four years, you will have seen the towering figure of Marie Louise Reilly in action.
Born in Leeds but living in Ireland since the age of 11, Reilly was a relative latecomer to the game. She was attending the Institute of Technology, Tralee when a college friend asked her to ‘give a dig-out’ at fullback as the local side was short on numbers. A decade, and a Grand Slam, on and ‘Maz’ can still recall what attracted her to the sport.
“Rugby has always had that respect between rival players and with the referees. There was no whinging with it like you have in other sports,” she told TheScore.ie. “I am 6′ 3″ too so it was great to find a sport where my height could be a real advantage.”
Having initially made her mark at fullback, Reilly moved to Meath, began playing with Navan RFC and met two women that would have a profound effect on her career. “There were trials at Leinster and I made it onto the squad. I met [Ireland captain] Fi Coghlan and Yvonne Nolan there, who were seasoned pros by that stage, and they encouraged me to make the move to the second row.”
Her Test breakthrough came in 2010 and in the past three seasons she has formed a formidable partnership with Sophie Spence. “She’s the powerhouse and I don’t know what I am,” Reilly remarks.
Modesty aside, 33-year-old is well respected by her teammates and by Ireland coach, Philip Doyle. She is the go-to line-out jumper, is one of her team’s highest tacklers and has a voracious appetite for work. Being head and shoulders above many of her opponents is no bad thing either. She commented:
It is like a tall person’s convention whenever my family get together for weddings. I have cousins and uncles who are 6′ 7″ and 6′ 8″. My cousin, Brendan Reilly, was a high jumper with Great Britain for years but he also represented Ireland at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Devin Toner is from the same village where I live in Meath — Moynalvey. There must be something in the water down here.”
Toner and Reilly will both be competing in Twickenham this Saturday as the women follow on from the men’s Six Nations clash. By the lock’s reckoning, only Fiona Coghlan and Lynne Cantwell have ever faced England Women at the 82,000-seater in London. With the Grand Slam holders welcoming Italy to the Aviva Stadium on 8 March, Reilly believes the added exposure can only benefit women’s rugby.
She said, “It is the stuff you only hoped would happen but never thought would happen. As Philip often says to us, though, you can’t expect people to venture out to watch you unless you give them something to appreciate; show them how good we can be. We are hoping to break down the stereotypes of women’s rugby and playing in Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium only gives more credibility to the sport.”
To that end, Reilly has no issues with RTÉ not broadcasting their matches live, on its mainstream channels, until now. “That’s for other people to claim,” she said, “but I will say that having our games broadcast live on 2FM [this season] has been great for raising awareness.”
Source: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Having put Scotland to the sword, to begin their Grand Slam defence, and eventually edging out Wales, England’s team of professionals await. Reilly, a sports development officer with Dublin City Council, takes the positive from the Wales game that her team are consistently proving they can come out on the right side of tight games. Saturday’s clash will undoubtedly be the most testing.
“We’ve got nothing to prove,” said Reilly. “England may have been without a few Sevens players last year but their team still had much more caps than ours and we beat them. They have great, experienced players like Katy McLean and Maggie Alphonsi but we’ve got plenty of players — Alison Miller, Cantwell, Coghlan, Niamh Briggs — that they’d be happy to have.”
RTÉ Two will have live footage of the England v Ireland game from 18:20 this Saturday.