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Captain Ciara: Leaving rugby behind for all the right reasons

By Lucy Lomax
Dublin , Ireland - 20 November 2021; Ireland captain Ciara Griffin and Laura Feely of Ireland before the Autumn Test Series match between Ireland and Japan at the RDS Arena in Dublin. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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You’ll never hear a bad word said about Ciara Griffin. The recently retired Ireland captain wears her heart on her sleeve, with her natural persistence and resilience meaning that whatever she sets her sights on, she usually achieves and then some.

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To demonstrate this, let’s take a quick tour of the 27-year-old’s pursuits so far.

She’s a multiple All Ireland champion in handball, is a full-time teacher, runs a personal training business, dabbles in farming on her family and in-laws’ farms on weekends, has coached the Munster Under 18s Girls squad, was made Ireland captain at the tender age of 24 and almost singlehandedly saw Ireland to their most recent victory against Japan in her final performance in green- can you tell I’m a fan?

The back row player, originally from Gaelic football obsessed County Kerry, signed off her rugby career last weekend taking to the pitch for the Barbarians when the women’s game took centre stage at Twickenham, which it’s fair to say, she was fairly excited about.

“I grew up watching the Barbarians men’s team and in 2017 I was part of the Munster side which played the Baa Baa Women for the first time, so it was really cool being on the other side and playing with them,” said Griffin.

“It was a pinch yourself moment, playing alongside some absolute heroes and idols of the game- sometimes I think is this actually happening?”

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It has to be said when Griffin, known as ‘Junior’ to her teammates, announced her retirement last month whilst at the top of her game with, you would guess, years of international rugby left in her legs, it came as quite a shock to the rugby community.

But when you peel deeper and become aware of the personal circumstances as well as the sacrifices and commitment it takes to play at the highest level in the women’s game, balancing a full-time job with training and gym, driving insane distances, whilst keeping everything else in your life ticking over, you start to understand the toll it can take on the body and mind.

“Not qualifying for the World Cup back in September, it was a difficult time for us with what happened in Parma and gave me time when I got home to think and reflect.

“I started thinking about on my own journey and my family and came to the realisation that it might be the right time for me to step aside. We’re now heading into another four-year cycle and it’s an opportunity for younger players to get that experience and hopefully qualify for the next World Cup.

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“I think it’s best to give the younger players that exposure and that’s part of my reason, but I’ll also have been married a year at Christmas and it’s time to put my family and my extended family first and focus on my own career outside of rugby.

“I work full time as a primary school teacher and do a bit of farming as well and have my own personal training business and my husband has been so supportive of me all along but it’s time to focus on other things, but I’ve loved every minute in that green shirt playing rugby.”

Griffin highlights a recent moment as one of the most meaningful in the emerald jersey.

“Our win against USA this November was massive for us. As you know there was a lot of negative stuff leading up to that match but it just showed how we came together as a tight unit and got that result. My other standout memory is my first start for Ireland in 2016. I got it against England at Twickenham- that was a massive moment for me as I always saw Twickenham stadium on the TV growing up and I never thought I’d be running out there and then captaining the side later down the line.

“Rugby is like a second family because you spend so much time together and I received lots of lovely messages when I retired and something to hang on my wall as a little memento which I can’t wait to show to my kids one day.”

As Griffin calls time on the rugby element of her life, is there anywhere she would love to see the women’s game in her country go?

“Everyone eventually wants to be a professional player, but at the start we need to put in the right grass roots and build it from the ground up. That’s so important and what works so well in England in terms of the Premiership and developing the club structure and the feeder systems. I’d love to see it developed more for us in Ireland in terms of the pathways from underage right into your provincial teams and then into the national programme.

“My Dad was involved with the local club, Castleisland RFC and I was pestering and badgering him for years to set up a girls’ team and eventually we got a team set up for under 14s and then under 16s. I then continued playing at college in Limerick and now realise I was so lucky to start at such a young age with a team and get that exposure.

“That definitely helped in terms of my development, and I really hope that happens for young girls now. Girls are starting younger and we need to keep them playing. You see with women’s sport there is a drop off with girls aged 13 and 14 years and I really hope the development structures can capture them and keep them playing!

“If a young girl is struggling to find a team, keep asking and asking and eventually you will get there.”

When speaking to Griffin, you get the impression that she never stands still, which is proved right when she explains what is next in her career- pursuing her other passion of farming.

“I’m hoping to go back to college to do a part time course in agriculture at the weekends for a year and a half and get my Green Cert.

“I also want to just enjoy time at home with my family and get into a bit of running which is a bit easier on the body but I’m always keen to challenge myself!”

An inspiration she has been throughout her playing days and an inspiration she continues to be. There is no doubt Griffin’s absence will be a loss for Ireland but you know she’ll be an asset to whatever she turns her hand to next.

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