Belfast doctor ready for Women's Rugby World Cup challenge

Irish rugby international Claire McLaughlin is waiting to hear if she will make the final 28 for this year's Women's Rugby World Cup being hosted in Ireland. Here, the Belfast doctor tells Gail Bell how the tournament is already changing outdated views on women on the pitch

Belfast woman Claire McLaughlin, a doctor at the city's Mater Hospital, is hopeful that she'll get picked for the Ireland squad for the Women's Rugby World Cup Picture: Hugh Russell

ALTHOUGH a calm, methodical doctor in her 'day' job, Irish rugby international Claire McLaughlin is struggling to diagnose her current emotional state which is presenting as a suspected case of borderline hyper-excitement disorder.

That condition, incidentally, is one concocted from imagination, but it must come somewhere close to describing the Belfast-based rugby player's heightened anticipation ahead of next month's Women's Rugby World Cup being hosted in Ireland – with matches scheduled for Dublin and Belfast.

The Ulster and Cooke (Shaw's Bridge) player will hear today if she is among the squad of 28 who will take on Australia in the UCD Bowl in Dublin on August 9 on the first day of the tournament, which will see the final being staged in Belfast's Kingspan Stadium.

Along with fellow Ulster players Ashleigh Baxter, Ilse van Staden and Nikki Caughey, Claire was selected as part of a 48-player training squad for the competition, which Ireland is hosting for the first time.

"It is hard to put into words how unbelievably excited I am," she says, in between shifts as a busy F1 (foundation year one ) doctor – or house officer – at the Mater Hospital, Belfast. "The following is getting bigger and tickets for the pool stages in Dublin are already sold out."

After graduating in Medicine from Queen's University last summer, Claire, who maintains she wasn't particularly sporty at school – "my only medal on sports day was for the 'Monkey Crawl' in primary school" – has been spending the first of her two foundation years at the Mater, working in general medicine and general surgery.

But such has been the "madness" of her schedule, due to long hospital shifts, training and matches, that the 25-year-old plans to take a year out next year before completing her second foundation year and then deciding on a specialism – sports medicine is under consideration.

As well as the immense personal enjoyment of playing for Ireland – she has earned six caps since being selected in March 2016 – the rugby fanatic, who first lined out for Ballymoney RFC at age 18, is hoping the tournament will elevate the women's game to a higher level and inspire a new generation of players and supporters.

"Attitudes to women in rugby are improving but there is still prejudice out there and some people hold on to the view that girls just shouldn't play rugby – and can't be feminine if they do," she says. "I think schools have a role to play by encouraging more girls to play, but they often come up against opposition from parents who think it is too rough.

"On the other hand, some men are under the impression that the women's game isn't rough enough. I will get comments from male friends, for instance, who say, 'Do you play on half a pitch?' or 'Was that proper contact or were you just hugging each other?' It is very frustrating, but you just have to laugh it off.

"Funnily enough, the people who make those type of comments usually haven't even watched a woman's match and, when they do, they are surprised by the standard of the tackling – it can be ferocious."

Luckily, the Bushmills-born player had 100 per cent support from her own parents who weren't overly surprised when their "tomboy daughter" ran off with her brothers' rugby ball.

"My own parents are very chilled-out kind of people and their attitude has always been, 'Do whatever makes you happy'," she says. "Both my brothers were really into the game, so I grew up with rugby and always loved it. The mud and the rough-and-tumble and even the injuries never bothered me.

"I remember watching my younger brother play for Ulster under-19s at Ravenhill [now Kingspan Stadium] against New Zealand and thinking it was so cool – not just the physicality, but the mental toughness and the strategic thinking that's required."

To test her resolve, she had her own first up-close encounter with the haka ceremonial war dance performed by New Zealand – "the best in the world" – in their match against Ireland last November in Dublin.

But, although "intimidating", she says the powerful, in-your-face Kiwi show of strength served to bolster the camaraderie among her Irish team-mates who "went out as a squad and just stuck together".

That sense of purpose has only been enhanced since the build-up to the World Cup, with Claire travelling to Dublin for training camps most weekends, while fitting in gym, running, bike and skills sessions during the week and also brushing up on technical skills via videos and books.

Her strong Christian faith, she says, plays a prominent role in life, both on and off the pitch: "Every time I put on my kit, I also put on a wrist tape with the inscription AO1 – Audience of One," she says. "God has blessed me with a talent so I play for Him and for that reason, I give 100 per cent. "

So, does she fancy Ireland's chances?

"Absolutely; Ireland are in great shape and on form to go all the way and win. There is an air of confidence and an intensity in the level of training. It's madness and sometimes you feel like you might die, but, when you realise you haven't, it's brilliant!"

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