'Imagine I could do that, one day' - Maeve Òg O'Leary living out her dreams, in red and green
"Seeing those young girls coming up would instil a lot of faith in you."
Having heard for long enough how the Irish women's side are starting from the bottom and looking to make the climb, Maeve Og O'Leary and her teammates are eager for the WXV to get going.
While the men's national side are heading off to France for their latest crack at a World Cup, new women's coach Scott Bemand has selected a 30-player training squad for the WXV [Tier 3] tournament in Dubai. That squad is boosted by the return of Beibhinn Parsons and Eve Higgins from the Sevens set-up. It is lacking in experience, but there is a sense that these are the early steps of a team on a new journey.
Maeve Òg O'Leary on finding rugby
Munster back-row Maeve Òg O'Leary hails from the town of Ballina, Tipperary and is the youngest of five O'Leary children.
"We've always been a sporty family," she tells us. "I didn't actually started playing rugby until I was 15. Would have played a lot of camogie - GAA was the big one in our house and we lived right across the road from the grounds."
It was Maeve's brother Shane O'Leary that, for many years, flew the rugby flag in the family. "He's my big brother and I would have always looked up to him, but I didn't think it was a possibility for me. There were no clubs in my town. But when I was 15, there was a club created [Ballina-Killaloe]. I started playing and I absolutely loved it. I loved the contact and physicality. You don't really get that in camogie."
O'Leary was also part of her school's first ever girls rugby team and, when she moved up to Dublin for college, kept in with the sport by getting involved with Blackrock, where she shifted from the backs to the forwards. At Munster, she came through the age grades and made her senior debut in 2021, turning heads so much that she made her Ireland debut months later.
There is a lovely symmetry to O'Leary making her Ireland debut, in November 2021, at the age of 21. Back in 2016, less than a year after she took her first strides in rugby, Maeve and her family travelled to Murrayfield with a legion of Connacht supporters, for the PRO12 final against Leinster.
"It was unreal being there for that game... I just couldn't believe this was my brother. We all travelled over, and I got to miss a day of school for it. Didn't we drive the whole way, too?! We drove up to Belfast and got the ferry to Scotland, then up to Edinburgh. Definitely an experience!
"I felt really lucky that was my brother and I remember thinking, 'Imagine I could do that, one day'. And sure he flew home [from France] to watch me getting my first cap and he said it was just as cool for him to watch it, and take it all in... Shane is one of my biggest role models and I feel very lucky being able to bounce a lot of stuff off him."
Of the other O'Leary siblings, Maeve describes brother Peter as 'a waterboy - surfing, swimming' who is currently over in Australia. Sinead, living in New York, played GAA and rugby while Conor was into watersports, too, and GAA. Maeve herself was also a handy softball player, representing Ireland at underage level in the sport.
Playing with heroes and Ireland's new generation
Asked for her rugby heroes, growing up, Maeve Òg O'Leary lights up as she talks about Sene Naoupu and Niamh Briggs, who ended up as her coach for Munster and Ireland.
"They were two unbelievable players. I went up to the World Cup in 2017 to see them play against Australia and I was fairly mesmerised. I was 17 then and didn't know how close those opportunities with Munster and Ireland would be.
"I never got to play with Briggsy but was lucky enough to play with Sene, which was cool. Coming into camp, you realise you've a lot more role models and people that you looked up to than you know. It was really special."
The past year has seen the likes of Naoupu, Ciara Griffin and Nichola Fryday [the last two Ireland captains] stepping away from international rugby. The latest Ireland squad still has the likes of Sam Monaghan, Edel McMahon and Christy Haney involved, but the focus and pressure is already on younger players like Maeve Òg O'Leary, Dorothy Wall, Neve Jones and Beibhinn Parsons to lift the fortunes of an Ireland team that has had a rough few years.
"We do have a young, and developing, squad and that is an exciting element to it," she begins. "Seeing the likes of Ciara and Nichola go has been really difficult, as they've been our leaders and have been unbelievable. They been through a lot and have done a lot for the women's game. Even though I'm 23 and here with these other 23, 24 and 25-year-olds - you don't think that you're going to be at stage where you are driving things. But that's the reality for us now."
Ireland's failure to qualify for the Women's World Cup was then followed by two underwhelming Six Nations campaigns saw them only qualify in the third tier of the new WXV [Women's XVs] tournament. They play Kazakhstan, Colombia and Spain over the course of 15 days, in Dubai, and will be looking to build confidence, cohesion and results as they head into the 2024 Six Nations.
As for young players to keep an eye out for, over the coming months and years, the Canterbury ambassador highlights Munster centre Stephanie Noonan and Beth Buttimer, who can play hooker or back row. "Seeing those young girls, like Beth, coming up would instil a lot of faith in you," says O'Leary.
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