Had it not been for the fact that rugby was a religion in the family, Kate Sheehan could have been lost to the game a long time ago.
The Munster hooker is one of the veterans in a side mixed with youth and experience for this season’s Interprovincial Series, which sees the defending champions host Leinster this Saturday at Musgrave Park, both sides starting the campaign with impressive bonus-point wins last week.
The 34-year old made her Munster debut way back in 2007 alongside her current head coach Niamh Briggs, while she’s been playing AIL rugby with UL Bohemians since she was 16.
Unlike a lot of players in her generation, she’s been playing rugby all her life, first with Young Munster as she followed the path laid by her brother Dave, who would go on to play AIL rugby with the Cookies.
But with no dedicated girls’ team at the time, she spent four years out of the game before landing out in Annacotty with Bohs.
“I went out to Young Munster as a child doing the minis but when you were 12 it was like ‘okay, bye’. There was nowhere to go after that for me. So I stopped playing,” she says.
“I was 16 and just by chance my uncle was working with Jason Enright, he was the manager [of UL Bohemians] at the time and he said ‘bring her out to training’. I remember feeling totally overwhelmed, to be honest but the girls were great, they just took you under their wing and showed you the ropes.”
The Women’s AIL may be dominated by Railway, Blackrock and Belvedere in recent seasons, but all have a long way to go to catch up on UL Bohs’ 13 titles.
And they were at the peak of their dominance in the 2000s, with Sheehan walking into a side containing the bulk of the Ireland squad, and having not played the game for four years.
“I gave basketball a bit of a go but I was a bit too aggressive! And tag [rugby]I just kept getting sent off so I was delighted to get back into the rugby.
“Now me and my brother would still play at home and my mother wouldn’t have a flowerpot left, we had the house destroyed, so I kept it up to some level,” she laughs.
“I started playing with Bohs in 05/06 when I was 16, playing AIL rugby back then.
“I came into a team where 17, 18 of the players were in the Ireland squad and the 15 starters were all starting for Ireland.”
In the early 2000s, she wouldn’t have been the only girl left without an outlet for rugby at the age of 12, and in another world could have been lost to the game for good.
And that’s the biggest change she’s seen in the game in recent years, with dedicated girls’ teams through the age grades, which are producing players capable of slotting into provincial, and even the Irish side while still in their teens.
“Now you can tell, they’re coming in at 18 and they can play.
“At the start of our AIL season Kate Flannery was thrown straight in, she just slotted in. She evolved as the season went on, but you could tell they’ve played rugby before. It’s not people starting at 21, 22, 23. They were in playing minis.
“It’s great for them to be involved, but they’re there because they’re good enough as well.
“When I was growing up, I used to go to Thomond Park with my Dad and at the time you couldn’t buy a women’s or a kids jersey, my mother used to crop the O’Neill’s jersey for me.
“Even then, there wasn’t big crowds because everyone was out at Garryowen and Young Munster games. We’re behind the men, but we’re on the right trajectory.
“I’ve made unbelievable friends over the years. I’m 18 or 19 years playing with Bohs and they’re the best memories.
“I don’t know where my life would be if I didn’t pick up the ball. So anybody thinking about it or considering sending their daughter out I think it could be the best decision you could ever make because regardless of whether they go on to play for Munster or Ireland, it’s the club scene that’s the craic.
“It’s the friends, if they don’t seem themselves, ‘let’s go for a coffee’.
“It’s a massive circle of people that will support you and you can take that into any aspect of life. Yeah, it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
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