Ballina’s Maeve Óg O’Leary is an all-round sportswoman
By Thomas Conway
When news emerged that the 2021 Women's Senior Interprovincial Rugby Championship would be broadcast live on TG4, it delivered a welcome boost to a competition which had suffered two years of stagnation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A double-header in Donnybrook recently marked the climax of an event which formed part of an almost festive weekend of men’s and women’s sport. Yet, the occassion was later somewhat overshadowed when footage emerged of Connacht players being forced to tog out for their game in an area surrounded by bins, refuse, and even rats - a shocking incident which has since elicited widespread condemnation and apologies from the organisations involved. More about that later.
The real story to emerge from Energia Park was Munster’s triumph over Leinster in the deciding fixture. It may not have dominated the Sunday paper headlines, but the elation of that 19-7 win was every bit as visceral and emotional as that of the Tyrone players celebrating their All-Ireland victory across the city in Croke Park.
For Munster flanker Maeve Óg O’Leary - a Ballina athlete whose sporting pursuits have taken her across the globe - winning that Interprovincial Championship will rank alongside some of her most cherished sporting memories. Rewarding as it was, the success was secondary to the slightly surreal experience of training, bonding, and playing with a squad during an era of ever-dampening Covid restrictions. The pandemic has been a frustrating obstacle for sports enthusiasts worldwide, but in the context of women’s sport, it isn’t the only barrier.
Not so long ago, women and girls’ rugby teams were more of a unique phenomenon than a common sight. As a teenager, Maeve Óg’s sights were firmly fixed on camogie and still is, scoring a goal for the club in the junior championship last weekend.
However, the evolution of a local team ignited a flair which, until then, had gone undiscovered. Since that time, elite-level coaching and individual influences have seen her develop as a player, transitioning from a role in the backs to her current position of openside flanker.
“So camogie was always my main focus, with Ballina and Tipperary. There was never a girls’ rugby team, but then when I was fifteen, they introduced one in Ballina/Killaloe RFC,” she recalls.
“So I joined the club and I played with my school, St. Anne’s. At first I actually played in the backs, at first-centre, and a little bit at 10 as well.
“Even when I got onto the Munster under-18s fifteens team, I was still playing at twelve. So then I moved up to DCU, started playing college rugby there - which was actually a really high standard, the coaching was great. Then I started playing club rugby as well, over in Blackrock, where Philip Doyle (the former Irish coach) was training us.
“But it wasn’t until I was 19, playing in my second season with Blackrock, that I was moved into the back row, to flanker. I have to say, I wasn’t very enthusiastic at the time, more so nervous, but I actually found that it was the position which suited me best. I feel like it has allowed me to empty the tank in every game, and I love just being able to run loads and attack, while still being a forward. You have an opportunity to do everything.”
Her rugby career may have been the central narrative, but there were a number of interesting, and slightly bizarre sporting subplots during those teenage years. Last summer, Softball made its return to the Olympic Games, featuring for only the second time following its short-lived debut in Atlanta 1996.
Back in 2017, Maeve Óg was one of four St. Anne’s students selected to train with the Irish Under-19 Fastpitch squad, having impressed at a Transition Year open-day. From there, the Softball saga spiralled, taking the quartet on a world tour over the course of the following years.
“One of our teachers, Grace Kearney, actually played on the Irish women’s team,” she said.
“They were obviously trying to promote the sport, and they invited a few of us to train with the national team, then they told us about the World Championships coming up that summer, which were taking place in Florida. And I just remember being like, wow, this is amazing. So we went to Florida and played for Ireland in the World Championships. It was just so cool, it was like a whirlwind.”
Subsequent trips to the 2018 European Championships in Italy, and the 2019 World Championships in California followed, and although there is an obvious parallel between Softball and camogie (courtesy of the bat and ball), any connection to rugby is more or less non-existent. Except it isn’t. A connection did exist, in the form of teacher Grace Kearney, whose sporting ventures veered into rugby as well Softball - which, along with Baseball, consistently ranks as America’s most popular team sport in terms of participation numbers. Her influence was crucial in encouraging Maeve Óg to pursue rugby, although there was a much broader canvass of figures who coloured her involvement in the game. Coaches like Neil Bradwell, John Houlihan, and Tyrone Elliot were all central, while Rosie Foley was an obvious role-model, but behind those individuals was a family steeped in rugby, as well as sport more generally.
The very fact that her brother, Shane, is a professional rugby player serves to highlight the degree to which the oval ball is embedded in the family. His odyssey in the professional game has so far brought from the damp, western pitches of Connacht to right underneath the Alps in Grenoble, before a stint in London with Ealing Trailfinders, then up to Nottingham for two seasons. The 28 year-old is now based in northern France, plying his trade with Rouen in the Pro D2.
His career has been both a source of intrigue and inspiration to Maeve Óg, the youngest of five siblings - Sinéad, Conor, Peter and Shane - each of whom form part of an "incredible support-system" which the 21 year-old DCU Masters student is eternally grateful for. Of course, the axis of that support-system is their mother and father, Delia and Declan.
“They’ve all had such a positive influence on me,” she said.
“They’ve never pushed me or forced me to do anything, they’ve just supported me. So I have that great support system, and then as well as that, my Dad, he works in Sport Ireland, so he’s very good around things like mind-set. And of course he knows the game inside-out as well. And then my mom is just my absolute idol in life.”
There is little doubt that women’s sport has catapulted forward in recent years, reflected by higher performance standards, general participation, and spectator interest. Still, parity remains a long way away. Various inequalities continue to exist between male and female athletes, so
when images surfaced of rats scurrying around beside the make-shift gazebo in which players were forced to change for those games last Saturday week, it prompted a raucous yet justified outcry from across general society. The IRFU is a hugely respected and professional sporting organisation, known for upholding the highest standards in terms of player welfare, facilities management and general structures. The entire incident was a ghastly mistake, but Maeve Óg is hoping that something constructive will come from it.
“It’s obviously just really disappointing to see and hear. I know there has been an official apology put out by the IRFU and Leinster Rugby, so I think we just need to acknowledge that yes it happened, then move past it and make sure that it never happens again,” she said.
“We train like professionals, even though we are not professionals, but nobody should have to get changed in an area beside the bins, where there are rats and things like that. It’s extremely disappointing and absolutely unacceptable.”
Disappointing, disheartening, dispiriting - use whatever negative prefix you like, most of them apply. At the same time, this was an isolated event. We haven’t regressed back to the days when Irish teams were forced to prepare for matches in airport bathrooms. Whether you’re a young girl or a mature woman, the opportunities to participate in sport are constantly growing. Role-models like Kellie Harrington and Ellen Keane now inspire the dreams of boys, girls, men and women. It’s more than likely there are young rugby players around Ballina/Killaloe with a future in the game, and though she may not be directly aware of it, part of that future may have been shaped by Maeve Óg O’Leary.