Ireland Women’s centre Michelle Claffey admitted it was quite emotional to make her first international start against the USA at Energia Park last Sunday afternoon.
After making four appearances off the bench during the 2018 Women’s Six Nations campaign, Michelle Claffey was selected alongside her Leinster colleague Sene Naoupu in midfield for what turned out to be an eventual 19-10 defeat.
“It was pretty emotional, a big day,” admitted Claffey. “I was pretty delighted to get my first start, especially at home in Donnybrook. It was massive. My family was there. My mam, dad, brother. The whole lot. The crowd was amazing. It was packed.
“It’s a massive step up. Huge in comparison to any interpro game or club game you’ll play (domestically). It’s only when you’re in the middle of it you realise how quick it is and how hard the hits are.”
Claffey and Naoupu are no strangers to each other, having formed a successful partnership with Leinster in the recent Interprovincial Championship which they won. Their roles are reversed at provincial level where Naoupu operates at inside centre with Claffey on her outside.
The number on the jersey is the least of the Offaly native’s concerns when she goes into battle, though, given the stock she places in representing her country. She explained: “Myself and Sene have played together for probably about three years between Leinster, Ireland and also we played touch (rugby) together in the summer.
“We play well off each other. My voice only came back (Wednesday) morning! We were chatting the whole time. I love to play in an Irish jersey, and the number on the back doesn’t dictate how much I love to play. If it’s 12 fine. If I’ve to slot in at 2, I’ll slot in at 2!
“The chance to wear the number 12 jersey is incredible. You look at the people who’ve worn it before. I never thought I’d get an opportunity to start for Ireland, never mind at 12. To continue to play with Sene, and she’s outside me, it’s fab.”
Claffey was part of the Ireland squad when they faced England at the Ricoh Arena in March’s Six Nations fixture. It was part of a double header with the countries’ Under-20 men. On the night both games went the way of the hosts in comprehensive fashion.
The Ireland Women return to Twickenham Stadium this evening for the first time since February 2016 when they narrowly lost a Six Nations match 13-9. Tonight’s Test is preceded by the senior men’s international between England and Australia, and Claffey, who is making her first appearance at England Rugby HQ, hopes a sizeable crowd will be in attendance for the 5.40pm kick-off.
“It’s going to be amazing. I’ve never played at Twickehnam. To play against England there this weekend is going to be amazing. Hopefully there’ll be a big crowd sticking around from the men’s game. Obviously we have our own supporters going over as well, so it’s going to be another big occasion. My mam and dad are coming over.”
Whereas Claffey was one of the new kids on the block during the Six Nations, making her debut in February’s home win over Italy, she is now helping to guide Ireland’s new caps through their early steps onto the international stage.
Ballinasloe teenager Beibhinn Parsons’ stunning rise to the senior ranks has been particularly noteworthy. She made history last Sunday afternoon by becoming Ireland’s youngest senior international – male or female – at just 16 years and 353 days.
Claffey, who works as a risk advisor with Ernst & Young in Dublin, added: “The new faces are there because they deserve to be there. They’ve earned their place there and I think it’s a process of, no matter what age you are and no matter how many years you’ve played rugby. When you’re coming into an Irish set-up it’s daunting.
“Everyone is helpful. We assist each other and we teach each other. We learn valuable lessons from training. When it comes to looking at the team, I don’t see an age. I see a player who has the capabilities to be there and put in a performance in an Irish jersey.”
Entry to the Women’s international between England and Ireland at Twickenham is free and no ticket is required. Entrance to the ground will be via Gate A from 5pm today. Bag searches will be in place so please only bring small bags.
Those who attended the England v Australia men’s match can stay for another dose of international rugby as England and Ireland go head to head. Spectators seated in the middle and upper tiers for the men’s game will be asked to be relocate to the lower West and East Stands