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Orchard Blazing A Trail On Road To Paris Olympics

Orchard Blazing A Trail On Road To Paris Olympics

Orchard Blazing A Trail On Road To Paris Olympics

Ashleigh Orchard (née Baxter) and her 10-month-old daughter Arabella are pictured together during the Ireland Sevens media event, following the squad announcements for the Olympic Games ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Ashleigh Orchard (née Baxter) was part of two of the biggest moments yet for Irish Women’s rugby, the 2013 Grand Slam win and the unforgettable Rugby World Cup victory over New Zealand the following summer.

A unique hat-trick awaits her next month as she is set to return to Paris 10 years on from the New Zealand game as a proud member of the first Ireland Women’s Sevens team to play at an Olympic Games.

Supporting her all the way will be her husband Jonny and their baby daughter Arabella. The adorable 10-month-old is already the squad’s unofficial mascot, and both her and her dad were warmly welcomed into the IRFU Sevens family during Ashleigh’s last two tournaments.

Players returning to rugby after giving birth has happily become a much more regular occurrence, including Sevens internationals Nicole Beck, Alicia Lucas, and Emilee Cherry (all Australia), Niall Williams-Guthrie (New Zealand), and Alichia Arries (South Africa).

Orchard’s former Ireland team-mate, Louise Galvin, has done so closer to home with the Kerry Ladies footballers, and it is heartening to see the understanding, support, and resources being put in place in high performance environments for these sportswomen to get back playing at the highest level.

“It’s definitely the best 12 months I’ve had yet. I think it’s with the times, it’s really become possible (to return to sport after pregnancy) now which is great,” said Orchard, speaking following the announcement of the Ireland Sevens squads for Paris 2024.

“If I wanted to go off and have a family at 28, I would have had to leave the (Sevens) programme to do that. But now there’s opportunities, people can stay in the programme and play a full career like the men if they want to.”

The Castlewellan woman first played Tag rugby before joining Belfast Harlequins aged 18. She was part of the Ireland Women’s 15s and Sevens set-ups for a number of years, making her Six Nations debut against France in 2012 and playing in four World Cups across both codes.

Frustratingly, a persistent calf injury forced the former winger to take a step back from playing rugby in 2019, with her last World Sevens Series tournament appearance in Dubai in December 2018.

She worked her way back to play for Ulster in the 2021 Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship, and began to gain coaching experience that season with the Ulster age-grade Sevens squads, as well as taking up a player-coach role with Energia All-Ireland League club Cooke.

Moulded into a turnover-hunting forward in the Sevens game before injury struck, Orchard still felt she had a lot to offer on the pitch. Having sorted out her calf problem, she mixed in with an Ireland Sevens Development squad in late 2022, playing tournaments in Elche and Dubai.

Her comeback led to a contract offer from IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora. The night that he called will be forever etched in her memory as she subsequently found out that little Arabella was on the way.

“David rang me to tell me he was going to offer me a contract, ‘would I come back in in January?’. I said yeah on the phone, and that same night I found out I was pregnant. I had to go back to David to let him know I couldn’t take the contract.

“So I suppose at that point, I was like, ‘ah this is a new adventure, I’m not going back, I’m not going to an Olympics’.

“I had Arabella obviously, and I didn’t think I was going to go back. I started doing a ‘Couch to 5k’. I was thinking I’ll do a marathon or something.”

The IRFU were still keen to get her back involved at the High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown, especially a player of her calibre and experience, having been in two previous Olympic cycles, played in four World Cups and on the biggest Six Nations days, and lined out in 87 World Sevens Series matches.

With things going well since Arabella’s birth last August and a solid support network in place, Orchard decided to take the IRFU up on their invitation. She is now back in the green jersey while on maternity leave from her job with Citibank.

“TJ (Ireland Women’s Sevens head coach Allan Temple-Jones) contacted me asking would I be interested in giving it a go again?,” she explained.

“‘Yeah’, I just thought, ‘do you know what, I’m going to give this everything I have and I’ll take it out of my hands and it’s in the coach’s hands and if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t’. I just didn’t want to have a regret. So I went for it.

“I didn’t know how that was going to go. I was rusty, like. and I knew they’d given me a chance. They’d let me go to a tournament here and there to see how I was getting on.”

The 32-year-old always had a burning desire since childhood to become an Olympian, and with the Ireland Women qualifying via the World Series last season and making history by winning their first Series tournament in Perth in January, she came into a buoyant set-up in early January.

With injuries to captain Lucy Rock, who hailed Orchard’s return to the Sevens side after pregnancy as ‘inspiring’, and record try scorer Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, along with Six Nations commitments, Temple-Jones’ charges lost some form during the second half of the SVNS Series.

However, as she worked her way back to full match sharpness, the presence of the Ulster veteran helped the girls in green to come through a tricky period, closing out the campaign in much better fettle by finishing fifth in Singapore, and sixth at the Madrid Grand Final.

For her first tournament back at this level, which was in sweltering Singapore in early May, she made four appearances off the bench and one start, even chipping in with a try against Spain

Having Jonny and Arabella there as part of Ireland’s travelling party made it all the more memorable, and while it is a balancing act for the young family, Ashleigh says they have felt the full support of the IRFU coaches and staff, backed by team sponsors TritonLake, and Arabella’s new ‘aunties’.

“I thought this is kind of my shot, I have to play well probably here. As much as they said there’s no pressure, I was like, there’s a lot of pressure.

“When I got home from Singapore, I didn’t feel out of place so I felt like the chance is there if I want to take it but I had to keep getting better. So it was probably around Singapore where I felt, ‘you’ve got a chance of going to the Olympics’.

“Everyone has been super helpful but there’s an element of you don’t want her to get in the way of other people. Initially at the beginning I was really trying to separate it both, but then the squad have really taken to her as well.

“I think she’s actually had a really positive effect on the team. They’re able to switch off with her too because she’s always around which is really nice. They help me out so much with her as well.

“It’s got easier because of that, I think – I call them her aunties! – and a big bit of it is the support from the management and the team around.

“Jonny is quite good at trying to take her away if she’s being difficult. Now she’s been very, very good. In Madrid, there was a bit of teeth going on so we struggled a little bit at night. In Singapore they got us two rooms.

“Around the tournament if she’s kicking off, my husband will take her out of the room at night if that’s what needs to happen so I can perform.”

She added: “I’m on maternity leave for a year to be there for her. I’m still feeding her. I didn’t want to stop that just so I can do this. I very much wanted to put her first, and the fact that the IRFU and management team all bought into that as well…

“They were like, ‘Bring her down, we’ll put you, Jonny, and Arabella up (in a hotel) when we need to down here, and same when we’re away, they can travel with us so you’re able to still have that relationship’.

“As a mum, it’s hard to just leave your child. If I was going away for two weeks and I had to leave her, I was kind of like, I’m not going to go. So it’s me and her, or it’s not either of us.”