"I was doing okay but after that call I was like, 'Oh God, this is really happening!'" - Beibhinn Parsons 3 months ago

"I was doing okay but after that call I was like, 'Oh God, this is really happening!'" - Beibhinn Parsons

"I definitely didn't think that, in a couple of years' time, I'd be wearing that jersey or playing alongside some of those players."

In August 2017, Beibhinn Parsons was finding her way back into rugby and getting up to speed by watching Ireland host the Women's World Cup.

At 15, she was taking notice of Sene Naoupu, Jenny Murphy and Sophie Spence but was more concerned with what her Junior Cert results would be or if Mayo would finally win the Sam Maguire. Within 15 months, though, she would be making her senior Ireland debut.

For Beibhinn Parsons, life moves fast as she moves fast with it. It has taken the entire world slowing down for her to properly reflect on a manic three years.

Beibhinn Parsons Beibhinn Parsons celebrates after scoring Ireland's first try against Wales with team-mate Aoife McDermott. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

For the past three months, as the country restricted movement and tightened social circles, the Parsons house-hold in Ballinsloe has been a hub of activity. As the youngest of four siblings, Beibhinn Parsons was delighted to get them back from college and work, and back under the one roof.

Her parents were both busy during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her father is a doctor (at Portiuncula Hospital) and her mother is a healthcare worker so they were out and about for work while their children tramped about Ballinasloe and re-lived their days growing up there.

"I've been living in an empty house for so long, with them being off in college so I'm loving having everyone back... We've been doing competitions and games to keep ourselves entertained. We did a week of Come Dine with Me so we all picked a dish and we'll have a winner at the end."

For the 18-year-old Connacht and Ireland winger, having her siblings back close was a huge positive during a time of uncertainty.

Back in February, Parsons was the talk of Irish rugby. She scored superb tries in home Six Nations wins over Scotland and Wales, then left the senior squad to go sit her Leaving Cert mocks at Yeats College.

"I made that decision back in December," she says, "as I knew if I was in the heat of it that I wouldn't be able to leave. I knew going into the Six Nations that I was only going to play the first two games.

"After that Wales game, I sat into my Maths (Paper 1) mocks the very next morning. It was a bit of a rollercoaster. From playing in front of a crowd to being in an exam hall."

The mocks were squared off around the time that the Irish government put lockdown measures into place as the Covid-19 pandemic took a costly toll. For Parsons, and tens of thousands of Leaving Cert students, they were told to keep studying as it was hoped the exams would still take place.

"The online classes kicked in nearly immediately," she recalls, "so I kept to my school routine as much as possible... I took it in my stride and was ready to take the exams in June. When it was extended [to July] I was thinking, 'Great, more time to study'."

That sense of unknown dissipated when Minister for Education Joe McHugh announced that 'Calculated Grades' would replace the seated examinations.

"When the exams were cancelled, I was completely shocked. I really thought that there would be another alternative... it was a lot to take in. There was no real full-stop.

"I remember watching Leo Varadkar's speech online and I was in shock. I couldn't believe it and I was like, 'No way. They're definitely going to find a way to do it'. I think I went back to studying that night. I was in complete denial!"

"In hindsight," Parsons adds, "I'm glad I did take that step back from rugby because, with all these predicted grades, those exams were so important. It was definitely the right decision."

'It was a mixed team but I ended up being the only girl'

Parsons is hoping to go to UCD, when third level education gets the green light to return. "It's all out of my control now," she notes. "I'll just get my granny to light a few candles and, after that, I'll say a few prayers and hopefully it goes my way."

She is keenly aware that female rugby players are unlikely to have rugby as a full-time career, so getting a good education will be vital over the coming years.

Ireland want her involved as much as possible, too. The XVs have to qualify for the 2021 Women's World Cup, later this year, and a player of Parsons talent would do wonders to their Sevens prospects.

Considering that she has come from a club that did not even have a senior ladies team when she first arrived, her journey into the national team is remarkable.

"I started playing rugby with the boys U11 team at the Community Games. It was a mixed team but I ended up being the only girl.

"That was the one season with the U11s and, after that, I didn't pick up a rugby ball again until a good few years later. There was a girls team set up and we had huge numbers show up - about 30-plus coming along for training. We really just took off from there."

In between that, Parsons loved athletics and she played underage football for Galway. "That was my main sport," she says, "until rugby came and took over."

Parsons may reside in Ballinasloe but there is a strong affinity, nurtured by her father, for the Mayo footballers. Her cousin, Tom Parsons, is the Mayo midfielder who has come close to All-Ireland glory several times over the past decade.

"You'd have to support Mayo," she remarks, "or you'd be kicked out of the house!"

"My dad would be very close to Tom and Tom's father. We used to go to all the matches and all the finals. My dad's heart has been broken a thousand times now, watching Mayo."

Tom Parsons in action for Mayo against Dublin in 2019. (Credit: SPORTSFILE)

The likes of Declan Murphy, Stephen Reilly and Dermot Tierney, she says, were the main drivers in establishing the girls team, which has led on to the newly formed senior team.

"This season was the first time we had a chance to trial out a senior team. I think we're in the lowest division but it's working well. We're trying to get a core group of girls together."

In 2017, when that senior team was more dream than reality, Parsons was encouraged to go for Connacht trials by one of her coaches at Ballinasloe. She made that squad and made such an impression that she was fast-tracked into the Ireland U18s Sevens squad, who happened to be coached by Adam Griggs.

Connacht captains, from left, Aoibheann Reilly, Emily Gavin and Beibhinn Parsons with the U18 Girls Interprovincial Championship in 2018. (Photo by Barry Cregg/Sportsfile)

When Griggs took over as Ireland head coach, two and a half years ago, he sought to introduce some fresh faces. Parsons was called into the senior squad in November 2018 and, aged 16, made her Test debut against the USA.

"It all happened so quickly that I couldn't even get my head around what was going on," she comments.

"I was so intimidated going into the first few camps. I was just in awe of these girls that you'd have watched on telly and now you're playing alongside them.

"I was so far out of my comfort zone but they were so hopeful in showing me the ropes and taking me under their wing. It was a surreal experience but, at the same time, I learned a lot and they were very welcoming.

"I remember getting a call from Adam (before the USA game) and he was like, 'How are you feeling? Are you nervous?' Up until that moment I was doing okay but after that call I was like, 'Oh God, this is really happening!'"

Waiting for the break in play, at Energia Park, to come on as a second half sub felt interminable but the adrenalin bump as soon as she ran onto the field soon washed all aside. "I understood, then, what all the training and hard work was for."

The Connacht star blazed past three USA defenders on her first carry, in that game, and fended another off but was denied a memorable try when she was just held up over the tryline.

The tradition for Test debutants is often for their new teammates to each buy a drink at the post-game function. Parsons was still 53 weeks off the legal drinking age after that November series game so prop Lindsay Peat came to the rescue. The winger recalls:

"We were all having a drink each, after the series, and I was like, 'No, I'll have a 7-Up or something'. Lindsay, from across the room, said, 'No, she'll have a gin & tonic and she'll give it to me!' That's how that was sorted out!"

Parsons helped the Ireland Sevens team to a fourth-place finish in the 2019 Sydney Sevens, scoring a try against Fiji along the way. She returned home for Six Nations duty and made a sub appearance against France and scored a try in a losing effort against Wales. Cap number five arrived last November and, in between that, there was more Sevens rugby and a stunning hat-trick to help Connacht beat Munster in a thrilling Interprovincial Championship semi-final.

The stage was set for the 2020 Six Nations and, with Ireland starting with a home-and-home stand, Parsons ignited. With Ireland leading a dogged Scottish side in their opener, Parsons' intercept try was one of the greatest matchwinners in recent years.

"With the Scotland try, I was running but I was waiting for a whistle to be blown. Something in the back of my head was going. 'This isn't real. This is a bit too easy'. On our own five-metre line and then down the other end of the pitch scoring a try.

"It was great, but it was something we had repped out in training a million times - that defensive shape - and then for it to come off in a match is a dream scenario, so I was delighted."

For her next trick, the following weekend, Parsons made Wales pay for a poor clearing kick by scooping a bouncing ball and leaving four defenders in her wake to send the home crowd bonkers.

"My Gaelic skills came into play there," she says, "keeping the ball out of touch. Just another nice try, early on in the match. You're always so glad, as a winger, to get a score early and settle into the match."

Parsons' game is not just about scoring, however. Like most modern wingers, she now has her fair share of work to get through and will be in clearing out rucks, covering the back-field and taking down ball-carriers.

"Wingers are definitely being incorporated into the game a lot more. It's something I'm trying to master and I'm watching the likes of Keith Earls and how he does it so well - getting into those midfield areas and getting line breaks. It's something I'm going to try bring into my game a lot more."

We have heard plenty about the various road-maps for sport, and life, to return to an altered state of normality. For Parsons, the next 12 months will involve college while Ireland and Ireland Sevens will hope to call on her services again when matches, and travel, are permitted.

Having taken the past few months out to reflect, she is proud of what she has achieved. She is also eager for more.

"Sometimes you can end up surprising yourself about how capable you are, compared to what you think you're able to do.

"I'm really excited for this next season and what I can do with that bit more confidence in myself."

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Ospreys and Wales legend James Hook joins Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble for the latest House of Rugby episode. Having retired last week, James looks back on his successful rugby career and talks about the switching to coaching, and writing children's books.