Having earned a place on the bench, Cooke and Ulster’s Eliza Downey is set to break new ground on Friday when the Ireland Women’s side take on Italy in their RBS 6 Nations opener at Ashbourne RFC (kick-off 7.30pm).
Eliza Downey is on the cusp of becoming one of Ireland’s latest rugby internationals, having only taken up the sport in her first year of study at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown.
Her love of rugby, helped by a dad and brother who both played for Banbridge, flourished as she took part in Sevens and Varsity games before successfully trialling for the Ulster squad and linking up with the Cooke club in Belfast.
A multi-talented sportswoman, Downey is now an established member of the Ulster side and certainly has the pedigree and wide ranging skills, honed in a number of different sports, to make the step-up to international rugby.
The 23-year-old is a well known Gaelic footballer, having played for Down for many seasons, and she captained the Mourne county side last year.
The cross over from Gaelic football to rugby is not uncommon, with Cork ladies footballer Mairead Kelly achieving the feat most recently.
Downey’s vast array of sporting exploits and achievements have included playing netball for the Northern Ireland Under-17s and basketball for the Ulster Under-19s, winning All-Ireland medals in junior athletics and achieving green belt status in judo.
She has been part of the Down team that has been making waves in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in the past two seasons, and 2008 was certainly a year to remember for her – winning the All-Ireland League and O’Connor Cup with UUJ, being nominated for an All-Star award and winning the Interprovincials with Ulster.
But rugby has been commanding her attention and time of late, training away under the command of new Ireland Women’s coach Kevin West and Downey impressed in her first game in green before Christmas, lining out at full-back in a six-try friendly win over Scotland.
You can tell what an affect rugby has had on the Ulster ace when she says: “Rugby has reinvigorated my passion for sport. The adrenaline and buzz from making a good hit, scoring a try or being part of its lead-up is second to none.”
Selected on the bench for Friday’s RBS Women’s 6 Nations opener against Italy at Ashbourne RFC, Downey has a prized competitive debut in her sights and is eagerly awaiting kick-off at the Meath venue.
“Honestly, I am so excited. There’s a great atmosphere in camp around our first game and it’s a real honour to have the opportunity to represent my country,” she admitted this week.
“I’m delighted to be a part of this year’s Six Nations. With this being my first year in the squad, I have been extremely impressed by the highly professional attitude of both the management and players in the run up to the Six Nations.
“Training has been intense, but very well-structured and very effective. The girls and management have been very welcoming and encouraging and have definitely helped me progress as a player.”
Downey understands that she is on a steep learning curve as a fledgling international but an eye-catching display or two in the coming weeks could help her cement a place in the squad, with a view to playing at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in England later this year.
Downey’s availability could depend on how far Down progress in the All-Ireland Championship, with the World Cup starting in mid-August. But, for now, how does she juggle her many sporting commitments?
“Over a year ago my long term goals in rugby were to gain as much experience as I could, taking part in as many club and provincial games, tournaments and tours as possible and playing with and against players of a high standard that would help me better my game.
“Fortunately, I have been able to challenge myself on all these levels and look forward to further progressing as a player.
“I’m lucky enough to have coaches and managers in both Gaelic football and rugby who understand my commitment and love for both sports.
“Working closely with them enables me to remain dedicated to both games and create a programme to work from that will assist my progress as an athlete and reduce the chances of burn-out.”
Looking forward to her first Championship experience, Downey’s maiden run-out at this level will no doubt whet her appetitite for more. But the player herself, although ambitious, is just hoping to keep improving and reaching her personal goals.
“Personally, I want to be able to justify my place in the squad by performing to the best of my ability,” explained the full-back-cum-winger.
“I am aware that I am always on a learning curve and will look to my other team-mates and those in the opposition for inspiration and example.
“Many of these girls are world class players, and I’m hoping that playing alongside them and being part of the whole experience will enhance me as a player.”
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