IF they took the solo out of Gaelic football then Laura Sheehan jokes that maybe she would have stayed with the round ball rather than swap it for an oval ball.
Growing up in Urhan, deep in the Beara peninsula and a football heartland, Sheehan played Gaelic football as a kid but felt it wasn’t for her. It didn’t click.
‘I wasn’t a great footballer,’ she admits, ‘and it didn’t appeal to me.
‘I’d prefer if they took out the soloing and let me run around people! Maybe that’s why I like rugby,’ she laughs.
Sheehan’s rugby story is an unusual one, as is her rise to become an Irish senior international – and the first from Beara.
As a kid she ran with Beara Athletics Club where her natural speed was an advantage. She loved athletics. But as she went through secondary school she found herself being drawn towards rugby, even though there was no rugby presence locally. At the time Bantry Bay RFC didn’t have an underage girls’ section so Sheehan’s options were very limited.
‘The nearest underage girls’ rugby team to me was in Listowel in Kerry, they had a good underage structure, and Bandon was the other one, and that was two hours away,’ she explains.
‘We did a little bit of rugby in PE and I wanted to do more, but there was no outlet to play rugby locally.’
Throughout the noughties Munster were making their presence felt on the European stage and Sheehan was hooked, but it wasn’t until she hit the bright lights and busy streets of Cork city for college that she picked up her rugby dream and ran with it.
Sheehan, now 27 and an Irish senior international who signed for the Exeter Chiefs earlier this year, was a late starter to rugby. She was 19 years old when she first played with a team: the college side in UCC.
‘Rugby was a lot more accessible when I was in college and there were more options for sport in general,’ she explains.
It was an instant hit, but she needed time to catch up. And she did just that during her college years, to such an extent that by her final year in UCC she felt comfortable on the pitch and that her hard work was paying off.
‘When I was in third year I joined club side Highfield so I trained with them on Mondays and Wednesdays, and then I trained with the UCC college team on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I played games for both teams too,’ Sheehan says.
‘It was great having both. I was getting double coaching and double training every week. It probably wasn’t the best for minding my body but I felt I had to improve myself, and I did. I was coming from the bottom of the ladder and I had to learn the game fast, so that’s why training and playing with both Highfield and UCC was a big help.’
Sheehan’s initial goal was to improve as a player and she never set designs on playing for Ireland. Initially, she targeted Munster and was part of a rugby-mad group of friends that loved the sport.
‘We came from different backgrounds. Ellen Murphy from Longford had a football background and Ciara Scanlon had a background in athletics and we all worked hard together,’ she says.
‘Leah Lyons was there too and she had pushed on to Ireland so we could see it was achievable, even though Ireland wasn’t the goal, it was about trying to push on with Munster – that was a more realistic goal. Ellen and Leah really pushed on and I hopped on their coat tails.
‘I got into the gym at Munster when I wasn’t supposed to be there, and when the girls were in Ireland camps I used to mimic their sessions on my own. The main objective was to throw as much as I could at it, to get better and get the most out of myself.’
When, in 2016, Sheehan started her Masters in UL she joined UL Bohemians, and her form there led to a call-up to Munster; a year later she scored on her debut against Ulster. Now, the Urhan woman was moving up through the gears and standing out as a winger. This is where her background in athletics helped.
Former Munster Women’s head coach, Laura Guest, told the Star before how Sheehan’s speed helped her stand out.
‘Laura has excellent acceleration and footwork. As a winger you need out-and-out speed, and Laura has that,’ Guest explained.
‘You can’t buy the speed she has but you can improve it and she works incredibly hard with our strength and conditioning coach.’
Sheehan’s hard work paid off. The Urhan speed merchant scored a try for Ireland on her senior debut against the United States in late 2018. Since then she has racked up four senior caps, including a very impressive display against Italy in the Six Nations last October. After that game Ireland coach Adam Griggs hailed her performance as ‘fantastic’ and ‘outstanding’. Since then Sheehan joined Exeter Chiefs Women’s team across the water as she looks to push for more caps for Ireland. It’s onwards and upwards for the Beara woman.
‘When I started off there was no girls’ rugby or women’s rugby locally for me, but now there is a great structure there. Look at all the girls coming through from Bantry, and girls from Beara can now play rugby,’ Sheehan says.
‘When I started the only person I had heard of was Maureen O’Sullivan who was from Beara and played with CIT when she was in college. Of course there was Laura Guest from Clonakilty who is a legend. Now there are so many more girls playing and it’s brilliant to see they have that opportunity to try the sport and see if they like it.’
When news got around that Sheehan started playing rugby in college she jokes that people thought it was just a notion by her, because it seemed unusual for a Beara woman to want to play rugby, but her success is embraced locally.
‘There were less funny looks as the years went on and it was more of “fair play to you”. As I pushed on there was almost more respect because people could see all the work was paying off,’ Sheehan says.
‘There was an element of “why are you doing that?” but it’s what I want to do and it’s what I love doing. I didn’t have the interest in football, but I’m obsessed with rugby.’
That obsession is reaping rewards. Sheehan doesn’t really have a weakness in her game, Laura Guest says. That’s high praise for the Beara woman who bucked the GAA tradition to follow a dream and show young girls locally that hard work and dedication can pay off.