Erin McConnell is flying the Wicklow RFC flag high in this season’s Celtic Challenge competition. She was the only player selected from her club to play in the expanded, cross-border tournament.
An Energia All-Ireland League Conference and Shield-winning captain last season, McConnell has been a consistent performer over the last number of years.
The 24-year-old scrum half has had an integral role in the rise of Wicklow at underage level in Leinster, and most recently in the Energia All-Ireland League Women’s Division with their senior team.
She earned her place in the Wolfhounds squad for the Celtic Challenge, starting the opening game against the Clovers. She will pair up with Nikki Caughey at half-back for tomorrow night’s fourth round clash with Brython Thunder at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.30pm – live on RugbyPass TV).
Erin’s biggest supporter in her rugby career has been her mother, Ciara McConnell. She was coached by her mum when she started playing rugby at Wicklow, and she now travels far and wide to cheer on her daughter.
Ciara McConnell (pictured second from the right in the back row, alongside then IRFU President Philip Orr) joined her fellow 1998 recipients at a special IRFU caps ceremony which was held in the Aviva Stadium in 2018 ©INPHO/Gary Carr
Ciara, who achieved a lot during her own playing days and was capped for Ireland against Wales in 1998, is clearly a big inspiration for the young Wicklow and Wolfhounds half-back.
“She got me into the sport when I was younger. She was coaching me from a young age all the way up through the underage structure,” Erin told IrishRugby.ie.
“She would have played at a high level herself. She played for Blackrock and Ireland when she was my age. It’-s an incredible thing to be able to look up to. She was a scrum half as well. I’ve taken tips and tricks from her.”
Her mum only properly hung up the boots a couple of years ago, but she is now happily retired on the sidelines as she watches her daughter play every week.
“She’s my biggest supporter. She’s always travelling around to see me play, always pushing me on to do my best. She’s always believing in me even if I’m not believing in myself.”
McConnell was always considered one of the brightest talents coming up through age-grade ranks at Ashtown Lane, but the Wicklow ace had to bide her time and patiently wait for a call-up to a representative team.
She is clearly relishing her time with the table-topping Wolfhounds, getting to train and play under coaches Neill Alcorn and Michelle Claffey, and showing what she can do alongside current Ireland internationals and provincial players.
“I’m absolutely loving training and playing with the Wolfhounds. The high standards, the intensity, it’s impeccable. Everybody wants to be at their best, which pushes you on to be at your best. It’s so rewarding.”
There is some healthy south-east competition at scrum half between herself and Enniscorthy native Katie Whelan, who was an uncapped member of Ireland’s WX3 squad. She is really pushing her on in training, while Ireland International Brittany Hogan has also given her plenty of advice and encouragement.
“Katie’s giving me some tips and tricks. She’s played at a high level herself (with Old Belvedere and Leinster). We’re pushing each other on. Healthy competition is great and we’re good friends off the pitch as well,” she explained.
“Brittany is always encouraging the players around her, making you feel better about yourself even if you feel you’re not having a great session. You can always count on her to lift you up and push you on.”
You will not meet many players who love their club as much as McConnell. She is often the social heartbeat of the club when Wicklow are celebrating a League or Cup win on a Saturday night.
She has already enjoyed some great times with Jason Moreton’s side, none more so than when she lifted their first national trophy in December 2022 when they beat Galwegians 22-17 at home in the AIL Conference final.
“Getting our first bit of AIL silverware was amazing, to be the captain of such a fantastic team. We’re just trying to strive for the best that we can.
“We’re rebuilding a bit this season, trying to focus on the comeback for next season and what’s to come after that.
“The environment in the club is so good. We’re so family orientated. We welcome everyone into our big crazy family. We’ve got all the sister connections on the team as well.
“There’s great support for the Men’s and Women’s teams. We’ve had some great nights together. We’re both playing Saturday rugby now which is great.”
One of the benefits of the Celtic Challenge is that it gives promising club regulars like McConnell the opportunity to develop further in a high-performance platform, learning from and playing with and against high-quality provincial and international players.
It is a chance for individuals to impress and push themselves into the selection mix at Interprovincial level and beyond. McConnell, who was involved in Leinster’s extended squad in 2022, admitted it will always be a goal of hers to play for the province.
She wants to come out of the Celtic Challenge window as a more experienced and smarter rugby player, eager to bring back her learnings to Wicklow to help other players grow. She added:
Hopefully I can bring those things that I’ve learned back to Wicklow to hopefully help us push on next season, like we did the year when we won the Conference.
“I’d love to be able to get into the Interprovincial set-up with Leinster in the summer. It would be amazing, I’d love that.
“But the main thing for me is to bring those things I’m learning back to Wicklow, push the standards there and hopefully get a few more Wicklow girls involved in these representative sides, which would be great to see.”