This weekend could see the Ireland Women qualify for next summer’s Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in San Francisco. Two of the youngest members of the current squad, Katie Heffernan and Claire Boles, are bedding in nicely at senior level.
The 18-year-old Katie Heffernan was the youngest of four teenagers involved in Ireland’s final outing of the World Seven Series a fortnight ago, the girls in green securing another top-eight finish in Clermont to finish ninth in the overall season’s standings – representing their best ever performance in the series.
Enniskillen talent Claire Boles (19) scored a try against hosts France on her World Series debut, while Mullingar starlet Heffernan crossed against Japan to add to her maiden series try against Fiji in Langford in May. Having first impressed at Under-18 level while coached by Stan McDowell, the young pair are now thriving in the IRFU’s Sevens programme led by Director of Women’s and Sevens Rugby, Anthony Eddy.
It was certainly a baptism of fire for Boles as Ireland’s schedule in Clermont saw her get game-time against New Zealand, the all-conquering World Series champions, and the experience has whetted her appetite for more as she prepares for this weekend’s final leg of the Rugby Europe Sevens Grand Prix Series in Kazan.
“The Clermont 7s was an unbelievable experience. I started to feel like all my hard work is starting to pay off. To be given the chance to play in a green jersey and score a try on my debut is something I’ll never forget. My family and friends were all extremely proud,” she told the Ulster Rugby website.
“I want to keep working hard and right now we are working towards the World Cup, we’re playing in Russia this weekend with the goal of qualifying for next season’s Sevens Rugby World Cup in San Francisco and pushing on to Tokyo 2020. Sevens rugby is such a great challenge, it may only be 14 minutes but no one realises until you’re on the pitch how much can happen in such a short time. It’s such a fast-paced game and really exciting.”
Heffernan has also been marked out as a Sevens player of great potential, coming successfully through the same underage development pathway as Boles and the likes of Chloe Blackmore and Anna McGann. The quartet have all played Sevens for Ireland at the UK School Games in recent seasons, with Heffernan captaining the Ireland U-18 Girls to bronze at last September’s competition and also playing at the subsequent U-18 Europeans in Vichy with Boles and McGann.
“I played two years with the Irish Under-18s and then I got the call-up to come senior last July after my Leaving Cert. Since then, it’s been a great road of rugby and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s been a great year for us,” Heffernan told Midlands 103.
“We’ve been around the world with the World Series and thankfully we did enough to qualify for next season’s series. It’s great to see a bit of the world as well, but it’s all about the rugby for me. It’s always been a dream to put on the green jersey.
“Just to get a chance to do it at such a young age, which is great. Every time I put it on it’s very special. When we get presented with our jersey the night before the tournament, you kinda step back and realise what you’re doing. And then when it comes to match day, you have your ‘head on’, you know you’re wearing the jersey for a reason and you just have to perform.”
While Heffernan first made her mark in rugby with the Mullingar Heifers, Boles has some real-life farm animals to thank for her tackling ability. “My dad thought I would make a good rugby player. I come from a farm and I would help him weigh the sheep to go to the mart and basically have to tackle them, so he thought rugby would be the perfect sport for me!,” she quipped.
“I went to Enniskillen Collegiate Grammar School and we won the Ulster Tag rugby Cup four times. I joined Enniskillen RFC who were were starting an Under-15 Tag rugby team. I really enjoyed it and I developed more skills as time went on, with the team winning two Ulster Girls’ club Cups.
“The school and club gave me the platform I needed to progress. I had great coaches, I got a lot of support at school and at club level, it was a brilliant atmosphere, really enjoyable and my team-mates were like a big family.”
Boles, who cites Ulster and Ireland’s Ashleigh Baxter as a big inspiration for her, was brought into the IRFU Sevens programme last September when she started a Chemical Engineering degree in Dublin. Heffernan, meanwhile, is in DIT doing Business Studies.
Their schedules are hectic with classes Monday to Friday, gym sessions at 6am and pitch sessions from 4pm to 7pm. “It’s hard work between college and rugby but I get it done,” admits Heffernan, who has also excelled in camogie and Gaelic football.
Niamh Kavanagh and Alison Miller have long been trailblazers for Women’s rugby in the midlands, with Ailsa Hughes and Nichola Fryday, who helped Tullamore gain promotion to the Women’s All-Ireland League this year, joining them as full-capped 15s internationals. That quartet are currently part of Ireland’s training squad for the upcoming Women’s Rugby World Cup.
The increasing number of midlands girls in the Ireland Sevens set-up, including McGann, mostly recently, who is following in the footsteps of fellow Buccaneer and former international Niamh Ni Dhroma, should inspire others says Heffernan who reckons her former Ireland U-18 team-mate Eimear Corri, the Portlaoise speedster who starred at successive UK School Games, also has a bright future in the game.
“I played two years with Eimear. She’s known for her speed. Underage we’d just ship it to her and she’d be up the wing! She’s a very good player. She also played for the Leinster senior (15s) team this year, so I was delighted for her. There’s definitely big things ahead for her.
“I played underage with Anna too. She also progressed to senior level after underage. She got her first Ireland Sevens cap in Clermont. I was delighted for her. She’s only 19 as well, another Westmeath woman. The midlands are taking over!”
As the Ireland Women’s Sevens team hit new heights both in Europe and on the world stage, and much excitement surrounds Ireland’s hosting of the 15s World Cup next month, Boles agrees there is no better time for young girls to start playing rugby at their local clubs.
With a nod to the IRFU’s ‘Give It A Try’ programme this summer, the Ulster youngster said: “Get out and join your local club and they will give you the opportunity to be seen and to work your way up the ladder. It’s such a fun game and really family-orientated – you’ll make friends for life.
“I would encourage young girls to put in the work and just enjoy every minute. If you enjoy it and you’re passionate about it, there’s no reason why you can’t go far. It’s huge having the World Cup at home this August, especially at the home of Ulster Rugby, Kingspan Stadium, for the latter stages.
“I’d encourage everyone to come and support, we are really looking forward to it. It’s a great opportunity for young female players or those who are new to the sport or even just thinking about playing to come along and see what it takes to be at the top level of Women’s rugby.”