The IRFU’s hosting of the Under-19 World Championship in Belfast in 2007 left a lasting impression on a then-15-year-old Claire McLaughlin. In the same way, the multi-talented Ireland Women’s centre now hopes to inspire youngsters to follow her path to international honours.
The rugby landscape has changed a huge amount in the intervening 10 years, the U-19 and U-21 World Championships since molded into a two-tier Under-20 competition format, while Ravenhill – the venue for the New Zealand U-19s’ 31-7 final victory over South Africa in April 2007 – is now Kingspan Stadium, the redeveloped home of Ulster Rugby with a capacity of over 18,000.
Irish Women’s rugby is also in much better place now, with a Grand Slam and a second Six Nations title won in the last four years and an historic fourth place finish at the last Women’s Rugby World Cup in France. The IRFU Women’s 15s and Sevens programmes are delivering results on the pitch and widening the player pool and depth of talent with each passing season.
With the Kingspan hosting the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup final later this month, Claire McLaughlin, one of two Ulster players in Ireland’s squad for the much-anticipated tournament, knows exactly where she wants to be come Saturday, August 26. Her leap from World Cup spectator to player has a lot to do with timing and the influence of her family.
In a feature interview with the Belfast Telegraph, she explained: “Dad played rugby at school and both my brothers were really into it. Dad would bring us to watch the Under-19 World Cup games and I vividly remember watching New Zealand play and thinking, ‘this is class’. I loved hockey, too, but rugby more.
“The physicality is something that really attracted me to it because in hockey and football I was always a bit too aggressive, so rugby suited me in that way. I was a tomboy growing up, running around a farm with two brothers, so I got used to a bit of rough and tumble.”
Having played Tag rugby at Coleraine High School, Ballymoney Rugby Club was then her next port of call at the age of 18, and her progression continued while studying medicine at Queen’s University. She made the step up with both Cooke and Queen’s at All-Ireland League level and won her first Ulster Women’s cap in 2011.
Breaking into the Ireland squad proved just as tough as expected. However, after developing a more rounded game as a tough-tackling and strong-carrying centre, McLaughlin’s hard graft and diligence – she is a voracious trainer – was rewarded with her debut against Italy during the 2016 Six Nations. Her caps tally now stands at six, following further appearances against Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, Italy and France.
Her all-action 80-minute performance during last February’s 13-10 win over the French, one of Ireland’s WRWC pool rivals, helped to copper-fasten her World Cup squad spot. Combining with Jenny Murphy at centre that day, they were a powerful force together and midfield is an area of serious strength for the girls in green, with dual internationals Sene Naoupu and Katie Fitzhenry also in the mix.
It is no surprise that the McLaughlin cites former international Grace Davitt as being a huge influence on her rugby career. She has played with and been coached by Davitt at Cooke RFC, with the pair also lining out together in the colours of Ulster. She says she has learnt a lot from the 2014 World Cup heroine, particularly in terms of her workload at training and improving her defence and communication on the pitch.
Like almost all of her World Cup team-mates, Claire has to balance her rugby commitments with a full-time job. 24 hours in a day do not seem enough for the busy Queen’s graduate who currently works as a foundation year one doctor at the Mater Hospital in Belfast. Although acknowledging that her work colleagues have been very supportive, she has earned the nickname of ‘McSwaplin’ for regularly swapping shifts to accommodate her rugby training.
“It is exhausting but the knowledge that I’m working towards the World Cup keeps me going. On Wednesday, for example, I was up at 5am for running and then went on to a 12-hour shift. It was straight to bed after that, then up again at 5am the next morning for more running. It’s intense and challenging to fit it all in, and I have to be very organised.”
Her WRWC preparations have also included weekend training camps with Tom Tierney’s squad in Dublin, and Fota Island most recently, adding to her own gym, running, bike and skills sessions back at home. A grade 8 pianist, it is clear that when Claire applies herself to something, she does it to the fullest of her ability.
Her strong Christian faith is at the heart of all that she does in life, work and sport. The 25-year-old from Bushmills, who is planning to take a year out from medicine next year, has the inscription ‘AO1’ – audience of one – on her wrist tape whenever she plays. God has blessed her with her rugby talent so she plays for him and always gives 100%.
“(‘AO1’) is just to remind me what I’m doing it for,” she explains. “I see rugby as a form of worship – I grew up in a church-going household, but it wasn’t until my fourth year at university that I needed to make a commitment. Everything was going well for me, but there was an emptiness, from not having a personal relationship with God. Life is much more fulfilling now.”
Claire’s busy life, on and off the pitch, is encapsulated by her ‘squatzgirl’ Instagram account. Her bio reads, ‘F1 doctor, rugby player, living to glorify God #AO1’. If things go to plan, she could well be adding World Cup winner to that list by the end of the month.