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Maeve Óg O'Leary: 'It’s iconic, it's unbelievable, really cool'

By Liam Heagney
Ireland players Maeve Óg O'Leary, left, and Sene Naoupu celebrate after a win over the USA (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Maeve Óg O’Leary has the gift of the gab when she gets going. There were an initial few hitches last week before she dialled in for a chat with RugbyPass and instead of her Zoom screen saying her name in the corner, Sinead was pencilled in. Explain.

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“She is my sister. We’re in Miami at the moment visiting my brother Shane (who plays in MLR for the local Sharks). We had a few technical difficulties this morning so I’m just using her phone. She has an American number and the signal is quite strong.”

Just like the strong vibe currently surrounding women’s rugby around the world. As soon as the Guinness Six Nations finished with England sweeping the board, the Pacific Four Series swung into gear in Canada, ratcheting up the growing excitement 15 months from the start of Rugby World Cup 2025 in Sunderland.

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That’s a jamboree in England that O’Leary’s Ireland will colourfully be involved in, their bounce back from Twickenham humiliation versus the Red Roses to beat Scotland in Belfast proving good enough for them to clinch third place in the Six Nations and qualify them for a tournament they will prepare for by participating in WXV1 later this year.

That Canadian trip could be beyond O’Leary’s reach for now. The five-cap back-rower was involved in the Irish winning WXV3 in Dubai last October but was only selected for training duty outside of the official Six Nations squad in the spring. She busted her knee and is now back at square one looking to begin the clamber back up the selection mountain again ASAP.

“I completed two weeks of full training and was released to my club Blackrock at the weekend of that second week where I picked up a knee injury, I fractured my tibia. It was an impact fracture. It was an internal, inside in the bone so nothing too serious,” she explained, chatting from her American hotel room before getting out and about to soak up the Sunshine State.

“Looking at about six to eight weeks return but I have had a couple of knee issues over the last couple of months and we are just trying to tackle them all now head on and I’m hoping to be back by interpros (in September). It’s just a pity not being able to try and break into the Ireland squad.”

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Lucky her that she has every incentive to get fit as quickly as possible and remind Scott Bemand she is worthy of a shout, not only in the back row but potentially in the alternative position of hooker where she is serving her throwing and front row scrummaging apprenticeship.

“It’s incredible. The World Cup is the biggest incentive, the highest place you can go in 15s rugby so everyone – from people who haven’t been involved in a year to people who are injured right now to people who are on the squad – the incentive to be involved and show what you can do, you are literally really counting down the days to show where you can put your best foot forward.

“For every player, it’s the biggest incentive and now it’s about being laser-focused and putting everything into it for the next 12 months and working towards getting selected for that squad. It’s on every player’s agenda,” she said, going on to explain how she coped with her restricted Six Nations involvement.

“All you can do is respond to the news or the opportunities you are given so being a training panelist, I still felt lucky to be able to be involved. Obviously gutted to not be able to be involved in the main squad but that’s elite sport. I felt like I could still be in as a training panelist and have an opportunity to break into the squad.

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“I back my abilities, I back what I can do and I would have loved to be able to become involved with a match day or break into the main squad but with injury, I was unlucky but it is definitely not the end. I have also tried to transfer across to hooker a little bit, a positional change I had only been at for only three or four months.

“It would have been a pretty big ask to be able to step onto a Six Nations team in that role, so it’s definitely a bit of a transition period. But I’m just going to view it as an opportunity, as most players would. I will just look to get back on the field, to begin with. I haven’t played in a while now with injury and it’s been a bit crap.

“I will just try to get back on the field in some capacity and learn to enjoy the game again a little bit more. Just get back into it slowly, get up to interpros, then Celtic Challenge, and then hopefully I can break into an Ireland squad. It’s difficult but it’s part of elite sport. You keep looking for the opportunity and the work on and see where I can slot back in.”

Changing position isn’t new for O’Leary. When the international softballer and camogie player from Ballina in Co Tipperary initially made rugby inroads, it was as a midfielder/out-half but she was soon ushered into the forwards, the area where the now 24-year-old would go on to debut for Ireland at Test level in 2021. That transition means serving another positional apprenticeship isn’t daunting.

“When you are around the park, when you are looking at a back row versus a hooker and you see now the likes of Dan Sheehan, Neve Jones, they are playing on the edges so that is something a back row does too so around the park it’s not too much different. It’s just that set-piece element and that hooker throwing and scrummaging.

“Throwing a ball as a hooker you can compare it to someone who is kicking, it is such a closed skill. There is pressure around it and it is very hard to be able to pull that off and execute in high-pressure moments across the games. My hat goes off to all the hookers out there but I am definitely willing to give it my best.

“There are good people around. Denis Fogarty is fantastic to have around camp. He is such a great guy and a great coach and he played hooker too. I am definitely willing to give it a good stab. You can transition between both. You see back rows throwing, Josh van der Flier did it. Maud Muir, she’s a prop, she did it in this year’s Six Nations, so having the versatility of hooker throwing in your back pocket is never a bad thing.”

O’Leary is well-spoken about her sport, which is no surprise given she works in the PR business with the Dublin-based Wilson Hartnell and is also a Canterbury ambassador. She enjoys repping the brand. “For Canterbury, I feel it’s not just like wearing their clothes or wearing their boots but I am part of their team and a bit of a movement I suppose to really highlight rugby.

“And even more importantly highlight women’s rugby. They do so much work at the grassroots with helping young girls see role models and helping them stay involved, and get involved to begin with. It’s fantastic to be a part of their brand and I love it. I feel really lucky actually to be supported by such a fantastic brand.

“I suppose what I love is they have really cool retro jerseys which you don’t see too much anymore, it’s kind of all the new stuff. They have the collar up and the long sleeves. Stuff like that, I love that sporty style. That’s probably my favourite thing from them at the moment.”

Let’s put her career expertise to the test. What does she make of the promotion of women’s rugby in general and how would she market it better?

“To be honest, it’s just about getting people in to watch the game. I think through the last little while it’s hard when a women’s squad isn’t in competition because it’s like, ‘What are we going to watch here?’ I mean, just it’s getting out and promoting.

“We have seen Her Sport do it on the streets, going out to men’s games and engaging that audience, being able to use that side of things. You are looking at crowds of 50,000, 60,000 at some of the Irish men’s games and they use that to definitely anchor in, they just want to let you know we have a women’s squad here too.

“Leinster rugby are very good at doing it. They give absolute equals to both squads, so whatever the men get the women get to do too. That is just internally from a player’s point of view and that’s fantastic. And I think it’s just about getting people really to watch it through promotion and sometimes that promotion can lack. But like social media these days, the following on Instagram accounts across the provinces and Irish rugby is huge.

“More promotion, more sharing means more visibility, more eyes on it. We saw the Twickenham game during the women’s Six Nations, they have 50,000, a huge number. I was there myself. The influence that the Red Roses have within their crowd is unbelievable. It has taken them a while to build but it’s fantastic, it’s really cool.

“The crowds at women’s games are massive. Even if we are talking about 6,000, 7,000 which we have had in Ireland, the interaction of the young girls with the women on the field is unbelievable. Like you really notice it. I have been to plenty of men’s and women’s games and you really notice that at women’s games. There is a huge engagement rate from the audience.”

England are the market leader in growing the sport. What has most caught O’Leary’s eye? “What they have really tried to do is start telling the stories of individual players. It’s really, really cool. They have their new Red Roses account but there has definitely been investment into the way they promote the girls.

“I know a lot of players might get individual videos after a game and it’s just their shots and they get to share that highlights reel. Or they started a podcast called the O2 Inside Line and you are actually really getting to know the personality of the players. Obviously, they have been incredibly successful. Winning is always going to get you that sort of attention and performing will also get you that sort of attention too.

“What they have done, you see it in their videos, they speak well, how this has been building now. It really went on to break boundaries that were there and they are over them and a lot of that has come through storytelling and really understanding where they have come from. The different names in the squad.

“You see Abbie Ward, she has had a child and come back. Just to have that documented, it’s iconic, it’s unbelievable, it’s really cool. You see a couple of players in Ireland too, the likes of Emer Considine, Ashleigh Baxter who just debuted back at the World Series, and the stories those girls have are absolutely incredible. How stories are told has been done really well.

“It’s a timely process and I think you can see through the media, the Irish rugby campaign this year with the women’s Six Nations, that’s growing. We see the players off the pitch, they are walking with their microphones chatting with fans.

“That has been really cool. And on an individual level, they have started making TikToks on a day in the life, stuff like that. They have been getting unbelievable engagement. It’s just about taking action with it first. Storytelling is the big one.” Sure is.

The interview was conducted with Canterbury where Maeve Óg O’Leary is an ambassador for the rugby brand

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