UNDER normal circumstances, Cork rugby star Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird would currently be preparing for the final leg of the Sevens World Series in Paris at the end of this month.
Ordinarily a combined event alongside their male counterparts, this tournament — hosted at Stade Jean-Bouin — is the nearest one to home for the Irish women’s squad.
For this reason, Nic a Bhaird was understandably disappointed to see it cancelled in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak.
“All of our tournaments are abroad obviously, but that one is a lot closer than any of the other events that we go to. Over the last couple of years that’s been one that people are able to get family to,” Nic a Bhaird said.
“It’s in such a cool stadium and obviously with it being a double, it’s just a bigger spectacle in general. It’s kind of a sad one to miss out on alright, but there’s a bigger picture I suppose.”
In addition to this sojourn to the French capital, proposed earlier trips to Hong Kong (April 3-5) and Langford, Canada (May 2-3) were also placed on the back burner.
Given their mixed form throughout the season — Stan McDowell’s charges finished 11th in each of their last three tournaments — Nic a Bhaird admits they had been hoping to end their latest Series journey on a high.
“We were in what would probably be considered a rough patch. We hadn’t been getting the performances that we would set for ourselves.
“Obviously matches weren’t going the way we had planned. We were trying to get back to grips with things and trying to see where things were going wrong. We were putting a lot of emphasis on analysis and trying to improve our general game plans and structures. Probably not the way we would have liked to leave the season.
“There was definitely a lot of things in place that we were looking to put forward in the tournaments that have been cancelled since.”
Though now in her third season on the sevens international circuit, Nic a Bhaird is also a strong exponent of the 15s game.
Having initially featured in the training squad for the 2017 Women’s World Cup on home soil, she eventually made her competitive Ireland debut in a Six Nations victory against Scotland in February of last year.
She accumulated four caps in total over the course of the competition — including starts at hooker in defeats to France and Wales. While it was a frustrating campaign overall for Ireland, it fulfilled a lifetime ambition for Nic a Bhaird.
“It was another one of those milestones. It was probably my first dream really in rugby, to represent my country in that way.
“It was Sydney I came back from and got the call into the Six Nations squad. It wasn’t quite the way I thought it would happen, but a really, really great experience.
“A lot of girls I would have played with through club and provincial level, I finally got to stand next to them during anthems.
“It was a pretty special season actually.”
Following the conclusion of the 2019 Six Nations, the University of Limerick alumni returned to the Sevens programme and has remained there since.
She doesn’t rule out switching back to Adam Griggs’ 15s set-up in the near future, provided the respective management teams in both codes are happy for her to do so.
“There’s been a couple of the girls who have been very successful at being dual across both codes. If I could get to that level as well, it’d be phenomenal. With the 15s, there’s a lot more competition in there now.
“The focus is generally on Sevens and getting the opportunity to play 15s, if there’s a time in our calendar that it’s appropriate. That’s managed mainly by our coaching staff.
“If I’m given the opportunity, I’ll absolutely go for it hell for leather. It’s definitely a dream for the future again.
“At the moment, I’m just focusing on Sevens and seeing when we get back playing really.”
Hailing from just outside Ballincollig, Nic a Bhaird’s first exposure to competitive rugby was with the Highfield U12 and U14 boys’ sides.
For insurance reasons, she wasn’t able to play with them beyond this grade but later re-emerged in the city outfit’s adult ranks as a prodigious 18-year-old.
She went on to play extensively for both them and UL Bohemian in the All-Ireland League before settling at her current club of Old Belvedere on Dublin’s southside.
Since Highfield withdrew from it in 2018, Cork have been without a club at the highest level of women’s rugby in Ireland. However, that is all set to change when Ballincollig join Wicklow in an expanded 10-team AIL for the 2020/21 season.
As a native of the area, Nic a Bhaird has kept a watchful eye on their progress in recent years.
“I wasn’t playing for Highfield in the last couple of seasons, but seeing them losing that spot was quite sad news to hear.
“Given I have such wonderful memories of playing there. Ballincollig has been working hard coming up through the ranks over the last couple of years,” Nic a Bhaird explained.
“Cork is such a huge catchment area, so it surprises me that they haven’t been able to keep an AIL team going. It will be great for Ballincollig to give people that opportunity.”