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‘After Failing To Qualify Before, This Is A Complete Bonus’ – Orchard

‘After Failing To Qualify Before, This Is A Complete Bonus’ – Orchard

‘After Failing To Qualify Before, This Is A Complete Bonus’ – Orchard

Ashleigh Orchard (née Baxter) is pictured training with the Ireland Women's Sevens squad earlier this week at the IRFU High Performance Centre ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Although the phonecall that confirmed her Olympic selection left her ‘shaking’, Ashleigh Orchard is remaining laser-focused and putting any celebrations on the backburner ahead of the Paris Games next month.

After accepting an invitation to resume an international career that was stalled by injury in late 2018, Orchard made an inspirational return to the Ireland Women’s Sevens programme in February, just six months after giving birth to baby daughter Arabella.

Watching the Olympics, growing up in County Down, left a lasting impression on her, and making Allan Temple-Jones’ 12-player squad for Paris 2024 means she will get to fulfil a childhood dream when the Women’s tournament takes place between July 28 and 30.

“When I was younger I was obsessed with the Olympics. I really was obsessed, that’s all I wanted to do,” explained Orchard, who reached a Rugby World Cup semi-final with the Ireland 15s team in the French capital 10 years ago.

“I used to swim, so in my head I was like, ‘I want to swim in the Olympics’, but I was too short and had tiny feet! So, I came into 15s (rugby) in 2012 and it was just around that point that Sevens was starting to kick off and the Olympic carrot was being dangled.

“When we failed to qualify for Rio and Tokyo I didn’t think it was a possibility for me anymore, to be honest. So this is kind of a complete bonus. Honestly, I just want to get there.”

Known as Ashleigh Baxter, or just ‘Bax’, for much of her rugby career, the Cooke clubwoman was recognised for her speed on the wing when winning the Grand Slam with Ireland in 2013. It was a track star that she revered when asked about Olympic memories that stand out to her.

“My biggest Olympic memory in my head is when Kelly Holmes won the 800m and 1500m (in Athens in 2004 when Orchard was 12). I became obsessed with her.

“I made a website about her. I can see the picture that was taken of her crossing the line of the 800m.”

From afar it looks like the former dual international (32) quickly got up to speed on her return to the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown. She showed huge dedication and work-rate to get back to the level of being selected for HSBC SVNS Series tournaments.

Muscle memory and her vast international experience, built up by almost 90 World Series matches and 24 Ireland 15s caps, undoubtedly helped with her reintegration into the set-up, but it did take some time to get used to the speed of the game again.

“I can’t remember if it was training sessions or games, I remember turning around to one of the girls and being like, ‘I just feel like everything is moving so fast in front of me that it’s just taking my brain too long to react to it’,” she noted.

As the weeks went by, her performances in training earned her selection for the final two tournaments of the SVNS Series, in Singapore and Madrid, where the Grand Final was held.

With the IRFU ensuring that Ashleigh’s husband Jonny and Arabella also travelled to the events with the squad, and stayed in Dublin with her for training, the Ulster ace got eight games under her belt and showed how effective she can be as a canny forward around the field.

Her efforts back at the HPC and in tournament mode convinced head coach Temple-Jones and IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora that she should be one of the 12 players chosen for the Ireland Women’s Sevens team’s Olympic debut.

Reflecting on how she found out about making the cut for Paris, she admitted: “I kind of had this picture in my head of how I was going to react either way, but it didn’t happen like that.

“I think I started shaking, and I didn’t cry or anything but I was just sitting on my chair shaking whenever he (Temple-Jones) told me. And then I went and told my husband.

“Yeah, we kind of had just a really normal day. I still feel like there’s five weeks to get there as well. So I’m trying to just keep training and we’ll celebrate when we’re there or the other side.”

Both the Ireland Women and Men have a final tournament to play next weekend, the second leg of the Rugby Europe Sevens Championship in Hamburg, before they prepare to hit their peak for the Olympics in late July at the Stade de France.

Having little Arabella with her in both Singapore and Madrid had Orchard beaming with pride, especially as she used her daughter’s birthdate (August 6th) to form her new Ireland jersey number of ’68’.

Restarting her international career while embarking on the early stages of motherhood looks a superhuman feat. Ashleigh is the first Ireland Women’s Sevens player to do so and will not be the last, with clear maternity policies part of the IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“There’s days you come in here (the High Performance Centre) and you’re like, ‘I haven’t slept well at all’. It’s getting better now, thankfully,” she said of the sleepless nights with a new baby.

“You just have to get on with it. Sometimes I wonder what I used to complain about when I’d be like, ‘I’m wrecked at training. Now I’m like, I really am wrecked at training!’

“It’s going to be special for her to look back on (the Olympics and the build-up). It’s unfortunate that she’ll not remember it now, but, yeah, I know it will be really nice for her to look back on and we’re trying to take lots of pictures so that she has that.”

Luckily for mum and dad, Arabella likes cameras and she had plenty of smiles to offer during this week’s Sevens media event at the squad’s Blanchardstown base. It would be no surprise if she took her first steps before Paris.

“She just stood there for a second. She got distracted with the cameras and she just stood. When we were in Madrid she did her first wave because the girls are constantly like, ‘C’mon, clap your hands, wave!’, and she just went (makes wave action) bye. It was so cute.

“She’s crawling and things now as well. I was hoping she’d take her first steps on the indoor pitch there. I thought that would be a good one.”

The Ireland Women grabbed the headlines with a sensational first ever SVNS Series tournament win in Perth back in January, just a few days before Orchard rejoined the squad. If they can contend for medals in Paris, the media coverage is sure to ramp up even further.

Having seen the recent success of some of their compatriots at the European Athletics Championships, Orchard is hoping for another podium finish for Team Ireland as they look to play to their full potential in Paris and inspire future stars of the game.

“You don’t think you’re a role model to the capacity that you are,” she added. “It just makes you realise how much people look up to you.

“There’s so many young girls playing rugby now which is fantastic, and they’re going to be watching you.”