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Lyons, Sheehan & Caplice On Their Munster Development

12th February 2021 By The Editor

Lyons, Sheehan & Caplice On Their Munster Development

In a regular season, Leah Lyons, Anna Caplice and Laura Sheehan would now be in the midst of a Six Nations championship but of course, Covid-19 has thrown the sporting calendar upside down in the last 12 months so their current situation is rather different.

The 2021 Women’s Six Nations, which will include a new format, has now been moved to April. The confirmation of these fixtures is hugely welcomed by the trio as they have experienced postponements of matches in the last few months due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

What Lyons, Caplice and Sheehan also have in common is that they have experienced their club rugby in the UK at some stage over the last 12 months. Living in these unprecedented times brings its own challenges, but they are particularly enhanced when you’re living in a different country away from your family and friends.

One of the positives of currently playing club rugby over in England is that the season is up and running. This is the reason why West Cork native Sheehan opted for a move to Devon just after Christmas to play with the Exeter Chiefs.

“There’s not a lot of club rugby going on in Ireland and the AIL just got pulled, unfortunately,” Sheehan tells Munster Rugby.

Laura Sheehan

“So, my thinking was just try to get a bit of game time and push on. I’ve been trying a lot over the last couple of years and haven’t played a lot of matches just through camps and COVID and things like that. So yeah, I was mainly trying to get into a matchday squad and try to push for game time and get that experience. Even just trying out a new environment to freshen it up and try to push myself to improve and learn more as well and challenge myself a bit.”

With the growth of women’s rugby continuing to rise globally, the sport is unique in that it offers an opportunity to travel and experience a different lifestyle. The desire to challenge oneself in a new environment is what has led to both Caplice and Lyons to line out for London-based Harlequins in addition to Sheehan’s current stint with Exeter.

The trio are fully-fledged Ireland internationals who all played a part for their country in 2020. Their respective journeys to this point have seen their careers culminate to the highest level of the sport but in any story, there must be a beginning as Lyons, Caplice and Sheehan reflect on the role models, peers and passionate volunteers who made it all possible.

Early-Beginnings

Lyons’ journey begins in Fermoy RFC where she played rugby from the age of six alongside her twin brother while her father, Michael, was a coach in the area.

When she reached the U13 age-grade, her father and other volunteers at the club set up a female underage programme so that the Belhooly native and other girls in the area could continue their development.

“I started when I was six or seven in Fermoy RFC,” Lyons said.

“My Dad was a coach and I played with my twin brother so the two of us went up through the age-grade system in Fermoy and then when I was 13, obviously I couldn’t play with the boys anymore so Dad and a few other of the men who had daughters who thought they would enjoy playing rugby decided to set up Fermoy Lionesses.

“So that was the underage set up that was there. So, from then, 13-18, we had an underage set up and, in the meantime, they decided to set up a women’s section also. So, the women’s team of the Fermoy Lionesses. So, I played along with them for two or three years and then decided I wanted to take another step up and I joined Highfield in Cork, so a Division 1 team to play at the highest level.”

Leah Lyons against England in 2018

As a West Cork native from the Beara peninsula, Gaelic football played a big role in Sheehan’s underage sporting career and it wasn’t until she attended UCC that she first got her hands on the oval ball.

“I started in UCC back when I was in college,” Sheehan said. “The usual day where you can sign up to all the clubs and societies and stuff. So, I signed up to rugby at the end of the day, and it took off from there. I really enjoyed it and then after a couple of years in college, I joined Highfield and had a good couple of years with them. When I went to UL to do a Masters, I ended up joining UL Bohs. I had a great start. I was very lucky.”

Similarly to Sheehan, Caplice didn’t take up rugby until the relatively late age of 17. In the Mallow woman’s instance, it was the creation of a women’s team in the north Cork town which got her involved.

“I started playing when I was 17 in Mallow,” Caplice said.

“There was a very successful well-known rugby club in Mallow for a long time, no girls section at all. I always thought I would have to wait until I got to University to play but yeah, I was 17, it would have been my fifth year in school and had two more years in Mallow.

“They started an underage girls teams and I never looked back. I played loads of other sports in Mallow. Once I started playing rugby, all my energy went into that. So grateful to have those couple of years of underage rugby. To be able to play for my hometown in Mallow.”

Inspiration

A recurring theme in our conversations with Leah, Anna and Laura is their gratitude towards the many hard-working volunteers who play a vital role in the lifeblood of the grassroots game in the province.

In Leah’s case and like many underage players in Munster, she volunteered at her club and it was during these times that she was able to develop relationships with her “superstars”.

“When I was younger, the Munster women’s team used to always train down in Fermoy and my parents were big involved. Just helping out – opening up facilities, getting tackle bags out – it would have been the era when Fiona Steed was coaching, so quite some time ago. It was when Amanda Greensmith, Marie Barrett…Niamh Briggs was just starting out as a young kid coming into it. But we would go down, we’d be making food for them.

“Seeing your superstars walk around you and being like, ‘Oh, do you know this?’ It was really great at that age just to see that, be involved. Even if it was just making soup at a clubhouse and just handing it to them to finally being able to join them. Just having them as mentors and coaches in the underage setup.”

Leah added:

“I have a good connection with Fiona Steed, Amanda Greensmith and Marie Barrett. I’ve always been on to them and they’ve always been great throughout the years of rugby. They’ve always been a great influence and they’ve always pushed me and wanted to see me succeed. That’s something that always put me in a good place.

“It builds a culture around Munster as well that everybody wants to see everyone achieve to the highest ability. Then see how far they can keep it going.”

The close-knit community who work tirelessly in women’s rugby in Munster saw Sheehan rub shoulders with stars of the Irish team in addition to being subject to the wealth of knowledge that was on offer from her time in UCC, Highfield and UL Bohs.

“In UCC I had Helen Brosnan and Fi Hayes as my coaches who were both internationals, had serious careers and still do. They’re both coaching now and progressing through that pathway. They were massive. At the time when I joined UCC, it was just before they went to the World Cup, so they had Ali Miller training with us just before she broke onto the scene and had her hattrick against England and stuff.

“They were people like Zoe Grattage as well that broke onto the Irish team. We saw her pathway through Munster as well. Similarly, when I went up to Highfield, Nicola Scully who is a legend for Munster women’s rugby, she put so much time into myself.”

Sheehan concluded: “Yeah, plenty of people. It was a great little bubble we had back in Cork in my formative years in rugby. Lots and lots of brilliant people.”

As Caplice recalls her fledgeling years in the sport, there’s one name which keeps cropping up and that’s Mervyn Shorten. As the back-row explains, Shorten played a pivotal role in developing girls and women’s rugby in Mallow. He had such an impact that when Caplice was selected in the 2017 Rugby World Cup squad, it was Mervyn she immediately wanted to thank.

Anna Caplice during her Ireland debut against Canada in 2016

“My first coach was Mervyn Shorten and he gave loads of his time and energy to Mallow Rugby. And then when the girls started, he was just always there for us and put his heart and soul into us and our team. There are so many characters above in Mallow and every club in Munster will have them but Mervyn was our number one man to get the show going for our girls’ rugby down in Mallow. It’s a real credit to him to have so many girls that went on to play for Munster, even at underage level.”

Anna added:

“When we were waiting for the notification for selection for the World Cup in 2017. It was really tense, and we knew that there was only so many places and some people wouldn’t get to go. It was a really tough afternoon waiting for the email and the email came and you’re looking for the first word, ‘Congratulations, you have been selected.’ I didn’t know what to do with myself, I knew I was very lucky to be selected and I was overjoyed but I didn’t know what to do.

“So, I picked up the keys of my house, I ran out the door and I went down to SuperValu. I picked up one card and I wrote it to Mervyn just to say that I’ve been selected for the World Cup and it’s all thanks to you. That was my initial reaction when I was selected for the World Cup.

“It all comes back to the volunteer.”

Looking Ahead

Although Lyons, Caplice and Sheehan are currently biding their time for the next opportunity to pull on a green jersey, the establishment of the fixtures for 2021 Women’s Six Nations championship is a real boost according to the trio.

“I actually can’t describe how it feels to get those dates written down,” Caplice admits.

“Anything can change at any moment so we’re prepared for that too. To keep the wheel turning the whole time, to have worked hard all season and even when things were pulled from under our feet back in December when the qualifiers weren’t going to go ahead, to keep the wheel turning, to keep training and to keep on top of things, has really paid off.”

Lyons echoes the comments of her international colleague and reveals that it’s “amazing” to get the fixtures set in stone.

“It’s the one date that everyone’s been waiting to hear and waiting until we get back playing rugby because it’s been such a long time since we played anything internationally-wise,” Lyons said.

“Our last match was against Italy in October. We’re not used to having a January or February off. It’s quite strange. It’s amazing to get the fixtures back and I think the new format will work out really well because we’re looking at World Cup qualifiers. Hopefully, we’re looking at Six Nations and then if the year goes really well for us, we’ll be looking to head to New Zealand at the end of it.”

For Lyons, Caplice and Sheehan, the three Munster natives have come a long way since their they got their first taste of the sport in Fermoy, Mallow and UCC.

Their progression to the international arena is a testament to their determination and work-ethic but it’s also clear that the passion for women’s rugby in Munster, driven by hundreds of volunteers, had a major impact on their development.

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