EXCLUSIVE: "A Competitive, Fighting Irish Team" - Maeve Og O'leary: Munster Flanker Ready for Return to Ireland Action - Ruck

EXCLUSIVE: “A Competitive, Fighting Irish Team” – Maeve Og O’leary: Munster Flanker Ready for Return to Ireland Action

The 2024 Guinness Women’s Six Nations was a tournament with plenty of talking points, as England claimed their sixth consecutive title and Wales took the wooden spoon. However, no story coming out of the competition can be compared to the revival of the Ireland Women’s team, as their third-place finish saw the Shamrocks qualify for the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

From finishing bottom of the pile in the 2023 Championship, Ireland were a team reborn thanks to the new coaching set-up and rejuvenated culture. Headed up by former England international and Red Roses coach Scott Bemand, Ireland achieved victories over Wales and Scotland, to secure third place amongst the tightly contested chasing pack. Whilst the Anglo-French front-runners once again decided the Grand Slam in the tournament’s final round, Ireland shocked their Celtic cousins by defeating Scotland 15-12 to close out their campaign.

Back row Maeve Og O’leary was named amongst the Ireland squad, yet an unfortunate injury curtailed her hopes of appearing in the tournament. Initially listed as a training panellist to stand in for any injured players, O’leary had to step down herself, as tibia fracture kept her out of action. However, the Munster talent is now eager to return to the fray, and spoke exclusively to RUCK about how she enjoyed watching her teammates defy the odds in April.

“I’m still out at the moment. I fractured my tibia in my right knee, Just an impact fracture. So it wasn’t too severe. It was within the bone, But I’m just having a few knee issues now just alongside it. So getting it sorted but I’m still out. We have a little bit of an offseason, a break now, so my hope would be to be back for inter-pros with Munster.”

“I think it’s the most exciting that this squad has been in the last couple of years for sure. It’s been pretty great. The turnaround I suppose from last year, there’s been a huge amount of work going in behind the scenes from all management staff and players. I think we just needed a little bit of guidance as a squad and good people in and around the environment.

“That’s certainly what has been brought in. It’s so evident, as I’ve already said, on the pitch, it’s really evident. I think the turnaround from last year to this year, it’s been incredible. I think it’s something that the squad really deserves. We have so many fantastic experienced players who we saw throughout the Six Nations, and for them to be able to reap the rewards of the work they put in over the last year has been really lovely to watch. It’s very, very deserving.”

Scott Bemand has been a pivotal figure to this newfound success of the Irish Women’s side. The former scrum half (check) had a successful on-field career with Harlequins, Leicester Tigers and Bath, before he began his coaching career at Dorchester RFC in 2010. Bemand’s impact upon the squad can not be understated, and O’Leary expressed her delight at her interactions with the head coach.

“I think it’s great. We’ve taken to it really well as a squad. He’s come in with so much experience, he knows the game, he knows what to do. I think it was really important that he knew what he wanted from Ireland and the squad as well, so that’s been fantastic. That’s been really clear to all the girls with the game messaging. I think that we can see that on the pitch that people know their role. They know what they’re trying to do.

“I suppose it worked really well for us. We’ve seen ourselves compared now in this campaign, qualify for a World Cup and WXV1. So that’s exactly where that squad wanted to be. And I think that’s definitely been part of what Scott’s brought over, and bringing all that experience and you can see it on the pitch.”

As the Munster back-row alluded to, the inaugural WXV global tournament was an important piece in the puzzle for Irish rugby’s progression. Ireland were seeded into the first ever WXV3 competition last October, and recorded a trio of wins against Kazakhstan, Colombia and Spain to clinch the maiden title. O’Leary highlighted how this gave the Emerald Islanders a new-found sense of accomplishment, after routinely coming up short against their Northern Hemisphere opponents.

Ireland then rolled this winning momentum into the Women’s Six Nations, and recorded their aformentioned success for a seat at the Women’s Rugby World Cup table next year. Speaking on the significance of the WXV triumph, O’Leary expressed her fondness of the competition and her excitement of being drawn into WXV1 for this Autumn’s tournament.

“I think that was a really important competition for us. It was our first competition after that sixth placed finish in the Six Nations. It was our first competition with a whole bunch of new staff, new management, so we didn’t have a huge amount of time together before that competition. So it was always going to be a little bit of a challenge, I suppose a little bit interesting, breed a few new players in just the whole kind of environment had really changed.

“It was obviously a big competition for us, but the environment created by all the players and management, that kind of growth mentality was really honed in on for that competition. I was really excited. It was really fun to be a part of it, we knew it was going to be a challenge obviously, with the heat then of Dubai on top of it, which makes things all the more intense.

“But I think we knew coming away from that, that winning that competition would be really important. It was something that we didn’t really doubt, we knew we could do this. We knew we were able to beat the the teams who we were going to be playing, and it was just important that we actually went out and put those performances down.

“The priority wasn’t even on the winning, it was more about the performances. ‘Let’s go out, let’s be a winning Irish team, a competitive fighting Irish team’. I think through that the wins actually just came. It was a hard fight against Spain at the end, but it was really important for us to be able to come away with some silverware there.

We anchored that through big, big performances and trying to implement what the coach had given us. I think we did that well. We’ve absolutely built another huge amount on top of that since then, through the Six Nations, which has been seen once again. I think that competition was really important for us, and it was definitely a turning point for the Irish women’s rugby team.

Turning away from O’Leary’s international aspirations, the back-rower is a profound performer at club, provincial and Celtic Challenge level. The customary flanker has been getting her reps in with the Clovers, yet has faced an unorthodox challenge in recent appearances at hooker. Presented with the front row opportunity as a way to add another string to her bow, O’Leary has been enjoying the challenge first bestowed to her by Clovers coach Denis Fogarty.

“There’s a huge competition in Ireland for the back row at the moment, and ‘m open to whichever avenues, if it means that I can try and break into a squad. So, I was very open to try in a role like hooker, it’s a very tough role. I suppose when you’re not in it, you can say oh, ‘I think I might be alright at that.’ But once I got going with the throwing, it’s very challenging and you know, it requires a lot of time reps and energy.

“I’ve thrown my hand at it, gave it a go. Around the park it’s pretty similar, It’s just that set-piece elements. So, I’ll keep driving around, I think it’s a great thing to have in my back pocket. Anyway, we’ve seen other positions step up during the Six Nations. We obviously had Josh van der Flier from Ireland last year do it, so it’s a great ticket to have in your back pocket regardless.”

Within the Celtic Challenge competition, two teams from Ireland (Clovers and Wolfhounds), Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors) and Wales (Gwalia Lightning and Brython Thunder) compete in a round-robin tournament. This league is steadily bridging the gap between the club competitions and test match rugby, as the three Celtic nations apply additional pressure on England and France.

O’Leary’s favourite fixture of the tournament is when she meets her Ireland teammates in the Clovers vs Wolfhounds derby match. This all-Irish encounter was last won by the Wolfhounds (21-15), yet it was not down to the likes of O’leary’s efforts. The versatile forward crossed over for a memorable try at the Kingspan Stadium, in what was a fiercely competitive encounter at the home of Ulster Rugby.

“They’re definitely the most nerve wrecking, but also the most exciting games. It’s funny, you’ve played alongside so many girls on the opposite side. So for me, on the Wolfhounds side I’ve played with and against a lot of them before. So it’s the most competitive fixture without a doubt. I think both teams, they just go out fighting. It was really enjoyable. I loved it, like getting to play at Kingspan was fantastic. So that was special, along with the occasion, but I suppose it’s definitely the most competitive fixture and you always want to win those ones, so you can hold those bragging rights.

“I think coming down into it, it was a really good game of rugby, where there was high talent on both sides. That was probably the most exciting thing that made for a good game. Obviously, the Wolfhounds ran away with it a little bit in the last one. But I think that second half performance that the Clovers came in with was really exciting. You definitely saw a bit of grit and I suppose when you get to see some it’s great.

“You get to see some real players come out of their shells. I feel like in those environments because you’ve got to step up, it was really exciting and definitely the most competitive. You always want to win those games.”

When Maeve Og is not tearing up trees for the Clovers or representing Ireland on the international stage, she is earning her spot through her club voyages at Munster and Blackrock. Beginning with Munster, the province plays against Ulster, Connacht and Leinster in the annual Ireland Inter-Provincial Championship, which O’Leary has twice been a victor of. However, last season saw a resurgence of Leinster, as the Dubliners claimed the title over Munster in the final.

It was a bitter pill for O’Leary to take, as Munster eyed up a trio of successive titles. The Irish star discussed last season’s campaign, and the upcoming ‘inter-pros’ that are set to take place throughout August 2024.

“Munster v Leinster, the rivalry there is absolutely massive, and you know it was definitely bitter losing. You obviously want to come out and win the inter-pros, but you have to hand it to Leinster. They really came out firing this year, we’d won the previous two titles, so frustrating to not be able to hold on to it for a third.

“That’s the thing with inter-pros, it’s a really quick turn around, it’s about a month of competition about a month long, it’s coming up again soon at the end of summer, and hopefully Monster will be able to take another shot at getting that trophy back.

“A lot of Munster girls down there, they’re performing incredibly. So, it’d be great to have them back in on a winning high already. Hopefully they can bring that winning into Munster.”

A player of many colours, O’Leary gives her all in the emerald of Ireland, the green and red of the Clovers, and the royal red of Munster. However, since she first picked up a rugby ball during her schooling years, O’Leary has proudly donned the blue, white and red and of Blackrock College. A stalwart of the side for half a decade, O’Leary finally guided Blackrock to the All-Ireland League title last season, after an unforgettable campaign.

“I suppose for the club, last year we won that AIL (All-Ireland League), that was unbelievable for Blackrock. That’s something that I suppose we’d work towards. I’ve been there for nearly five years now, and the players before me been there for 10 years. That’s been a huge goal of ours and to be able to do that was absolutely incredible. We were on cloud nine, and sometimes in a club where you have a big win you get a little bit of a turnover, so we lost a couple of senior players.

“I suppose with the women’s rugby calendar getting more jammed, it doesn’t allow for internationals to be back at club as much as they used to be and I suppose. that’s kind of part and parcel with trying to grow the international roster. So that’s definitely been I suppose a little bit difficult this year, not being able to be down in club to help them as much.

“Obviously I’d been injured so that’s been my story. But, I think the girls did really well towards the end of the season, they really rallied down at Blackrock and it was such a testament of their character. It’s been tough at times this year with numbers and obviously trying to field two squads.

“But when it when it came to it, they were fantastic and I got to get down to play a couple games towards the end of the season which is the best feeling, getting to play with your club. That’s where you would have started your rugby career and really, you know being made and being valued. It’s so nice to go back down and be able to give back a little bit, so that’s Blackrock.”

The interview was conducted with Canterbury where Maeve Óg O’Leary is an ambassador for the rugby brand. Speaking on her involvement with the giants of rugby apparell, O’Leary discussed how she feels part of something important, with the development of grass roots women’s and girls rugby at the forefront.

“I feel really lucky, to be honest, able to work with Canterbury, they’re such a great brand. And in terms of the way they promote rugby, especially women’s rugby, they do lots of grassroots work to help young girls get involved and stay involved. I think that’s really, really evident across their brand. So I’m absolutely honoured to be able to work with them and to try to be even just a small part of that. It’s definitely it’s a great feeling.

“You really feel a part of something when you work with them, which is so fantastic. It’s not just wearing the clothes, wearing boots, it’s actually part of a movement. So that’s really great. For me. The boots I love wearing at the moment, is the speed infinites, I love them. They’re great. I’ve always kind of struggled to find boots that fit my feet, I have quite flat feet. When I tried them out, I was like, ‘wow, these are great. They’re really light’.

“I’m a forward so I need something sturdier under my feet, but they actually worked perfectly perfectly for me. So I love them. And I know a few of the girls on the squad as well, I’ve gotten them a few pairs of boots and that they seem to enjoy them too. So it’s it’s already been a great year so far with Canterbury.”