Our Evening with Highfield Ladies RFC

A challenge was issued to Katie P by Heather O’Brien, Irish International Rugby Player to come and train at her club Highfield RFC. To say Katie bit her hand off saying “yes!”, is frankly an understatement! This year we watched the Irish Women’s Rugby Team power their way through the World Cup and a part of us was always hoping that we would get the chance to train with some of their members because this team has done something very special.

Through their talent, determination, competitiveness and world class ability the Irish Women’s Rugby Team in 2014 transcended gender. They were simply and rightly the Irish Rugby Team. Everyone followed their games. As a nation we all cheered, roared, urged and cried, watching them slice their way to the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup. They are our national team and we as a nation were behind them and could not have been prouder. Answered Ireland’s Call? This lot answered, challenged and made us all call back later for the next installment.

As women in sport and women in sportswear we champion female athletes of all levels, but these ladies don’t need champions – which is one of the reasons they are ours.

The first thing that struck me as I rocked up to train with some of our rugby legends and legends in waiting, was the inclusiveness. These ladies embody the word “team” and like all truly passionate athletes are only too happy to share their love of the game with you. We met Heather O’Brien Irish International (sorry, was I just a bit too cool when I said that? I think so! HEATHER O’BRIEN, IRISH INTERNATIONAL!!!!), (who could not have been nicer btw) and it was off to the dressing room for my jersey and my boots – challenge Katie P was under way!

When I returned the team had already cracked on with the session – note to self, gotta get up early in the morning to keep up with these girls! Myself and Brid watched for a couple of minutes and as soon as we got the nod, got stuck in. It was all a blur and quite intense but I think Brid got the ball at some point. I do not think that I got it at all. Then the rather depressing news that this was a light session was passed on to us. A light session?! LIGHT??!! As it was a Monday and matches were played over the weekend, some players would understandably have injuries (these girls don’t mess around, if you think that this is some kind of “touch” rugby, no hard tackles…….ha ha, come to a training session; that will put you right!), so a Monday session focuses on fitness and drills – no scrums, no line-outs, allowing time for recovery.

We did limber up exercise, push-ups, squats and then drills – fast passes, some tackling, quick, agile, fast on your feet. There is a ferocity to this team that needs to be experienced in the flesh to appreciate – when you get the ball and these ladies turn to you, they do not see “girls here to do blog who happen to have my ball”, No. They see, “You. Have. My. Ball. Want to do this the easy way or the hard way?” It was sweat-inducingly intimidating and as neither myself nor Brid had played before, the answer was always going to be “easy way”, but it was quite a rush to see that kind of controlled aggression up close. As team sports go, I always thought hockey was pretty hard-core, those sticks alone can do a lot of damage but, and this was something I didn’t appreciate until I trained with the ladies of Highfield RFC, there is still quite a high level of civility on the hockey pitch. Not so with rugby. The high level of skill, coupled with a rawness makes this a game that gets past the brain and into the blood. Even though we just scratched the surface, there was a satisfaction level with rugby I hadn’t quite experienced with a team sport before.

Got to chatting with one of the players who was injured, Zoe, whose love of the game shone through her. It was at this point, with Zoe, that I began to understand that as teams go, Highfield is as close as any I have seen. The train together, play together and even party together. Huge efforts are made on and off the pitch (their fancy dress outfits are legendary!!) so that when it is game day these ladies trust that the team around them likes them and has their back. Zoe got us to throw some balls for a line out. When Zoe threw, the ball soared for miles – it was a throw Cu Chullainn would have been proud of. When we did, it plopped a pathetic 5ft in front of us. It didn’t stop Zoe’s boundless enthusiasm and after a few more goes we were hitting the dizzy heights of 6 and, I don’t like to brag or anything, but maybe even 7 feet.

Then came a girl that I need to make my best friend immediately – Noddy! Yes, that is her name, no I don’t think I had a concussion at this point. Noddy is the kicker for Highfield and kicking is something I have always wanted to do. My Dad kicked, all the men in my family kicked and it was time to see if the kicking gene so clearly passed to the boys in our family made it through to the girl’s side. For the record I am left legged (same as Dad) and after some pointers from Noddy on my first kick ever – I got it over the bar. Generations of my family wept with happiness and pride – you just can’t keep a good gene down! I was freaking!! Noddy starting getting me to really work on technique, focus on pacing, angles, pause. I became beyond rubbish – that first kick was clearly beginners luck….but it didn’t stop me racing home and bouncing around telling my dad and reliving that first kick in graphic Technicolor detail.

Everyone we met at Highfield was incredibly generous with their time and it was just as well, because the time had come to get seriously dirty. Noddy had us kneel on the ground, she would come at us (slowly!) and we had to take her down. We had to hit her quad with our shoulder, wrap our arms around her legs, snuggle up cheek to cheek (our face cheeks against her….erm, cheeks) and get her to eat dirt. Loved this! Loved it, loved it, loved it! These girls are elite, roars of “Whack me”, “You won’t hurt me!” filled our ears. You really had to go for it and we were face down in the mud A LOT. This is really no place for a princess!

Training was finished and time for the team huddle. We huddled against the dark, the wet, the cold, sweating and breathing hard after our session. It was raw, filthy, intense and one of the happiest teams I have ever had the pleasure of training with. The coach talked about the game, motivation and strategy – NONE of which I am sharing. This is private stuff and whilst I didn’t train as hard as the other girls, I did train hard enough to earn my right to the huddle and I ain’t blowing it by being indiscreet. I can tell you that 1 minute of “punishment” was handed out to the team – after brief discussion about the form the punishment would take it was agreed that a lap of the pitch piggybacking your partner and a lap with your partner doing a wheelbarrow was the punishment for the day. I couldn’t tell if this happened at every training session but it was hilarious, and got quite competitive! This was no punishment, the only punishment you could give these girls is to stop them training.

Huddle over, back to the dressing room? Not a hope. Heather decided it was time to teach me how to do a line out. I had to pull up my leggings and expose my skin (for grip…at this point I am already getting very nervous and haven’t quite put together what is about to happen). I am told I will be lifted by my knee and my bottom and that I am to go as stiff as a board. I had to count them down, then jump up and catch the ball. Count down started, 10, feeling nervous, 9, stomach churning, 8, the counting is making it worse! 7, trying to find some kind of inner confidence, 6, reminding myself to breathe, 5, what comes after 5? 4, mind goes blank now, 3, can just hear my own heart thumping in my chest, 2, bend my knees ready for the off, 1.

It didn’t matter that I jumped about an inch off the ground, I am propelled into the air, above everyone’s heads and screamed. I had no idea I would be so high up, you see it on telly and it looks okay, believe me you are really off the ground, how anyone can catch a ball under these circumstances, well, all credit to them, it is very impressive. Back to me – up in air, screaming, kicked someone in the face, no idea where the ball went.

Couldn’t believe I had kicked someone in the face, came back to earth mortified and apologising profusely. I had clearly forgotten I was with rugby players – I was assured that “I was fine”, “don’t worry about it” and it was back in the air for me again.

I started to get the lift (go me!!!!), you need to keep yourself stiff, lean back into it and catch the ball. Confession time. There was no way I was going to catch the ball….so….yeah….the photo of me “catching” the ball, was in fact a photo of me holding the ball. Okay, okay so I set it up, but I am coming clean now and in years to come when this blog has faded into the annals of internet history – I will still have a framed snap of me, doing a line out with a ball in my outstretched hands, looking badass.

Did a scrum with Heather – she went very easy on me, but by now I was really getting into it. It wasn’t just the physical side of things it was the team and the atmosphere. A lot of girls stayed back to watch my training session, everyone so eager to share their sport and this was 9 o clock at night, no one had eaten for hours. I couldn’t have been more welcome…and I am sure I provided a couple of giggles with my line out attempts, but hey, I would happily entertain this impressive group of ladies any day of the week.

We wandered back to the clubhouse and straight into the dressing room. It was with regret I handed back my jersey. To Heather, Zoe, Noddy, Amy and all the ladies at Highfield RFC I would like to sincerely thank you for an unforgettable experience, your endless patience and your willingness to show a novice what it is that makes rugby so special.

It was on our drive home that myself and Brid got to chatting. Highfield didn’t just provide us with a blog, they taught us something that is forever going to be part of the Queen B ethos. When Highfield play, they talk to each other all the time. Never anything negative, always encouraging. They have a saying that could be applied not just to any team, but to any business. At Queen B it isn’t always easy. It is relentless, hard work and at times feels like an endless uphill battle. It is during these times that we will look back at our Highfield experience and remember – “The more tired you get, the more you need to talk”. We are having it framed.

If you want to learn more about women’s rugby here are a few web sources, key people and Twitter handles as recommended by Heather O’Brien.