In the 13 years since she took up the game of rugby, Fiona Hayes, the captain of reigning Women’s All-Ireland League champions UL Bohemians, has become accustomed to success.
Making her debut in the Ireland Women’s stunning Six Nations triumph over England in February 2013, Fiona Hayes ended that campaign as a Grand Slam winner. She also featured for Ireland at the following year’s World Cup in France, before securing a second Six Nations Championship crown in 2015.
Hayes has also won plenty of silverware with her beloved club in recent times, captaining UL to All-Ireland League glory in the past two seasons. When you place all of these achievements alongside her various Interprovincial titles with Munster (not to mention her exploits in soccer with UL and Douglas Hall), it is abundantly clear that the 36-year-old is a serial winner.
With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hayes was so disappointed to lose out on back-to-back Interprovincial titles with her province at Energia Park recently. After Niamh Briggs narrowly missed a last-gasp conversion, Munster’s 14-all draw with the hosts meant that Leinster finished top of the table and were crowned champions on scoring difference.
Because 14 of the UL Bohemians squad were part of Munster’s matchday 23 for that dramatic Interpro decider, Hayes acknowledges that the loss it will certainly keep them motivated ahead of their quest for a third consecutive league title.
“Obviously I wouldn’t have been too happy about losing (to Leinster). It’s nice to have that stored up coming in, because you’re playing against Leinster, Connacht, a lot of the clubs are the same. Connacht would have a lot of Galwegians girls on the team,” said the Limerick-born prop, speaking at the recent Women’s All-Ireland League launch at the Aviva Stadium.
“Leinster, the majority, bar a couple of players, are playing AIL as well. I think they’d a couple of Suttonians in. When you go into those big games, it’s kinda in the back of your mind. Even though it’s your province, it’s still in the back of your mind. Especially as there’s maybe 13 or 14 of us in Bohs still hurting.”
The uneven number (seven) of teams in the Women’s All-Ireland League this season dictates that one team is idle each week and it is turn of UL in the opening round. Eager to make amends for their final defeats to UL Bohs in the past two campaigns, Old Belvedere will host the Red Robins on Sunday week (October 7) after kicking off their campaign away to Cooke this evening (kick-off 5pm).
Hayes understands there are pros and cons attached to have an early break from competitive action, although it has been welcomed by the majority of the UL Bohs squad.
“We go straight into ‘Belvo, so I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing to have the rest. We were only talking about it in the group saying ‘thank God we’ve two weeks off’ after Leinster. ‘Belvo is going to be a big game, because obviously we’ve had them in the final in the last few years.
“Being with Munster, the fact that we’ve gotten to play together with Munster and we can go straight into club, it mightn’t interfere that much when we go. Because we’ve been club training, but we’ve only been able to make maybe a couple of sessions in the last couple of months. It’s crazy with Munster training. We’ll see how we go anyway.”
While there will be little room to rest on her laurels in the forthcoming season, the closing months of 2016 proved to be particularly hectic for Hayes. Still a major part of the Ireland set-up at that point, she juggled All-Ireland League and Interprovincial duties with November internationals against England, Canada and New Zealand.
The switch of the Interpro series to an earlier start date of September ensured it was brought to a close before the start of the domestic campaign and Hayes believes it will benefit the All-Ireland League in the long run.
“It’s definitely better. I think the AIL will benefit from it as well with them (Interpros) going on beforehand. I was at a World Cup one year and I think they did it early, and it was really good. The standard was excellent. You’re getting people started out, ready to go.
“Whereas in November, December, there’s a few club matches and people are going with Ireland, and this and that. It kind of gets a bit all over the place. I think it’s an excellent idea to have them beforehand.”
A new initiative for the forthcoming season will see the men’s and women’s All-Ireland League games being staged as double headers. For instance, UL’s visit to Blackrock on Saturday, October 13 will be preceded by the Division 2A meeting of their male counterparts.
Having witnessed the strong connection that exists between the two senior sides in UL, Hayes fully endorses this idea, noting: “It’s definitely something we’ve been asking for for a couple of years. We’ve had a good connection with our men’s team in Bohs over the years and that has stood to us. I’ve been at awards nights and the older men would be giving out saying, ‘why can’t you be as good as the women’s team?!’
“There is a good banter there and I’d always, if I was in Limerick, go out and watch the boys. To get that is excellent with all the clubs, to have something on the day. It can kinda be like a family day as well. You can bring out kids or whatever. It’s good. To me it says that the AIL is looking at Women’s rugby now and we’re on the up, really.”