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Interview: Sarahjane Belton

Interview: Sarahjane Belton

September was a month to remember for Sarahjane Belton – captaining Ireland to eighth at the Women’s Rugby World Cup, winning her 50th cap and a place in the World All-Star XV.

…Sarahjane Belton…

September was a month to remember for Sarahjane Belton – captaining Ireland to eighth at the Women’s Rugby World Cup, winning her 50th cap and a place in the World All-Star XV.

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The Wicklow native, who plays for UL Bohemians and Munster, showed her versatility by slotting in at both out-half and full-back during Ireland’s Cup campaign in Canada.

Her assured line-kicking, accurate passing and well-timed runs were vital as the girls in green overcame South Africa and severely tested both Scotland and Australia, two teams ranked above them in the world rankings.

Belton’s inclusion at number 10 in the tournament’s All-Star team only confirmed her growing reputation in the game.

Back on home soil and back to the daily grind, Belton is focusing her immediate attentions on a new lecturing post in the capital and the All-Ireland League season, which starts this Sunday.

IrishRugby.ie caught up with the talented 25-year-old recently to discuss her career to date and her World Cup experiences.

IrishRugby.ie: Sarahjane, you didn’t take up rugby until going to the University of Limerick. What attracted you to the sport initially and do you still feel the same way about it?

Sarahjane Belton: I took it up as a friend of mine, Ian Costello had started up a team in UL. Just to try something different. I was playing a lot of soccer at the time, in goals, and so the freedom afforded playing full-back in rugby was just brilliant. I still love the freedom you are given to run in rugby and really enjoy the tactical and decision making side of things – plus the fact that it really is such a team sport.

IR: You’ve played at out-half, most recently, and full-back for Ireland – do you have a preferred position?

SJB: I played full-back exclusively from day one, until the 2004 Six Nations. Our then out-half Joanne O’Sullivan broke her finger against England so I had to slot in for her fairly quickly (Joanne has played full-back for us for the past few years!). My first ever game at ten was against Spain in that year’s Six Nations tournament. I enjoy both positions – I love the freedom of full-back and the decision making at ten.

IR: Your first call-up to the Ireland squad must have been exciting – tell us a bit about it?

SJB: My first game in the Europeans in 2000. I was still pretty new to the game so, to be honest, the whole thing was a blur. It was a huge learning curve and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

IR: Wins have been hard to come by for the Irish team, until recent seasons. How did you deal with those early defeats?

SJB: The defeats took their toll alright (and still do) but as with anything, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. The only way to really appreciate success is to have been at the receiving end yourself. And when we do win our games, it means an awful lot to us.

IR: You were combinding your studies (B.Sc. Physical Education and Mathematics) in UL with playing rugby for Bohs, Munster and Ireland – that must have been tough. How have you managed it?

SJB: It has been difficult alright but I don’t regret a second of it. The PESS Department in UL were very supportive over the years and if an exam or lecture clashed with a game, they always worked to accomodate those of us involved – as they do for athletes from all disciplines. It was a matter of prioritising things – sometimes work/college, sometimes rugby and sometimes, but rarely, other commitments!

IR: So what are you currently up to. I believe you’re working up in Dublin? Do you still plan to play for UL Bohs?

SJB: I had just submitted my PhD the week before heading to the World Cup and I will have to sit my Viva examination in the coming months to complete the process. At the moment, I’ve started a year’s post lecturing PE with the Education Department in St. Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Drumcondra. I’m living in Wicklow at present so getting used to the traffic is my biggest problem so far!

I will continue playing with UL Bohs for the season, but will not be able to train with them as much as I would like however.

IR: How was the PhD (The design and validation of a physical activity selft-report measure for use with children aged 7 to 9 years)?

SJB: The PhD was a great experience and I’m pleased with the findings. The first step will be to publish these findings, and from there, we’ll hopefully use the tool we developed to assess physical activity levels of younger children in primarty schools.

IR: Back to the rugby, if you’re in an international week, say for next year’s Six Nations, what would an average week be like for you with regards to training and preparation with the management?

SJB: Usually the management have everything well worked out so they don’t need me for anything. There might be a few matters the coach would want to talk about (tell me about!) but that would be it.

Training wise, we would typically do three weight sessions (usually in the morning), one or two speed sessions (morning or evening) and one or two multi-sprint endurance sessions (evening). After that there would be two club training sessions, and I would fit in kicking practice after a couple of the other sessions.

IR: What’s your approach to kicking – do you work off your own style or take bits from other people?

SJB: I suppose I have taken bits of pieces that other people have shown me and built my own style. It has worked quite well for my punting but not so well for my goal kicking. I definitely need a bit of direction from someone!

IR: Do you get annyoed with the inconsistent coverage that women’s rugby gets, or does it bother you?

SJB: No I don’t get annoyed about it. It would be great for the development of the game in Ireland if the profile were to be raised consistently, but really when it comes down to playing the games, media coverage isn’t going to make you win or lose. I think, and I hope, that as we start to win more often the media will pull behind us more consistently too.

IR: 2006 has been a pretty special year for you – helping UL Bohs to their fifth All-Ireland League title in as many years and scoring three tries in the final. How was that for you?

SJB: Yeah, it was a great day. A lot of people put in a lot of hard work to win those titles and to get the fifth one was just a dream.

IR: Any out-half needs faith in their half-back partner so how is Tania Rosser to play alongside with Ireland?

SJB: She’s absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t ask for better. She even slotted nicely into out-half for the last ten minutes of the Australian game when I went off injured. You can’t ask for more than that!

…Belton with her Ireland half-back partner Tania Rosser…

IR: Tell me about captaining Ireland – what does it mean to you and how would you describe your captaincy style?

SJB: It’s a great honour to captain the Irish women’s side, we have such a great bunch of girls that are all great friends and that really makes the job so much easier. I’m not sure what my captaincy style would be described as. I’ve really been finding my way and learning the best way to do things as time has progressed. This year was my second season as captain and I’ve certainly learned a lot over the course of the two years!

IR: How is the current Irish management to play under? Any idea why coach Philip Doyle is called ‘Goose’?

SJB: The Irish management have been brilliant to play under. They are very open to our ideas and opinions. There is much speculation about why Philip is called ‘Goose’ but I’m afraid you’ll have to ask his ‘Rock ‘chums’ for that one!

IR: The World Cup – did you expect it to be as good as it was, firstly in terms of the organisation? And then Ireland’s success?

SJB: I think the answer to both questions would be yes. We knew Canada would organise a great tournament and we knew we were well capable of moving up the rankings at the tournament. We had great support over there – a lot of parents and boyfriends – it was great to hear them on the sideline.

IR: You lost your opening game of the World Cup 43-0 to France – how did the girls raise themselves up after that?

SJB: Due to our placement at the last World Cup, we got drawn in a very hard pool. It was always going to be difficult to face the French in our first match. It was a baptism of fire in a lot of respects. We didn’t play well in that first match but we reviewed the game afterwards, picked out where we went wrong, learned from it and went from there. It is the only way to deal with a big loss in a tournament like that.

IR: Then the USA game must have been frustrating to lose?

SJB: Yeah, that was a difficult game. The USA completely and consistently broke down the continuity of play we were striving for. Continuity that was essential for us to implement our game plan. I think really a lot of it goes down to experience and we’ll be better able to deal with a situation like that the next time it arises.

IR: If you could describe the style of play of this current Irish side, what would it be?

SJB: It’s difficult to describe but really what we strive for is an open style of play, with a lot of interlinking between forwards and backs to move the game in the direction we want it to go. We try to keep the ball alive as much as possible using a lot of support play to ensure the offload is an option.

IR: How did you approach the South African game – was it with a nothing to lose mentality?

SJB: No, I think really, in that South African game, we had everything to lose – neither of the previous two games went the way we wanted, although we had to the performance against the USA, the scoreline did us no favours. We had to win that South African game and we had to win with a bonus point if we were to have a chance of moving into the middle four grouping (5th-8th). The Spain-Samoa game went on about ten minutes later than ours at the other venue so it was an anxious wait for us to hear the result there! (A 37-0 win for Ireland and Spain’s 14-12 defeat of Samoa saw Belton and company qualify for the 5th-8th place play-offs).

IR: In between games at the World Cup, what did you get up to as a squad?

SJB: We didn’t get too much time to get out and about but there were some very funny moments – too many to go into!

IR: Was losing 11-10 to Scotland the worst moment of tournament for you, knowing that you were so close to the 5th-6th play-off?

SJB: For me personally it really was – we were so close to taking that game. We were full sure we had another four minutes or so of play left and the way we took control in the last quarter, that four minutes could have made all the difference. But again, it’s an experience thing and we need to learn as a team to take control of games a lot earlier if we want to take the victories. It was definitely one of the toughest moments I’ve experienced on a rugby pitch.

IR: You rounded off the World Cup with an excellent display against Australia and then you were named in the World All-Star XV – that must have been a special moment for you? How did you find out about it?

SJB: Yeah it was pretty unbelieveable. I really didn’t expect it as there excellent out-halves playing for France, England and New Zealand who could easily have received that award. They announced it on the last night as the post tournament banquet where all the teams were together for a meal. We were presented with an IRB certificate and an ‘inukshouk’, a native Canadian rock statue.

IR: Clocking up 50 caps for your country is some achievement – you did it along with Rachel Boyd against Australia. Have many done it before you in the history of Irish women’s rugby?

SJB: I know one player who did it for defnite, Fiona Steed, and there may have been others before her – not too sure. It was great to reach that milestone alright, and even better to share it with a good friend and an even better player, Rachel Boyd. We have played every game togerhet since our first cap in Spain so it was great to run out together against Australia.

IR: Finishing eighth in the tournament, were you all pleased with that? When you come back together as the Ireland squad, what would the goals be for next year and the Six Nations?

SJB: We’re definitely pleased to improve on our ranking (from tenth to eighth) but perhaps a bit disappointed to have come so close to 5th/6th place. I suppose we have something to aim for next time around! I’m not sure when we get together as a squad again, most likely November. We haven’t identified goals for the Six Nations yet but really we’ll be looking for wins against Spain and Wales with a long awaited win against Scotland.

IR: Finally, since you’ve come back from Canada what has the reaction been like? Do you get a sense that people are more aware of the Irish women’s rugby team now?

SJB: I definitely think more people are aware of the squad and what we are trying to achieve than they were this time last year. The reception we’ve had from people since we got back home has been very positive.

For more information on Women’s Rugby in Ireland click here.