"I finally got my chance to play for Ireland - then I went into contact and my leg just broke" Rugby star Ciara Griffin shares what it took to achieve her dreams
In a new book by journalist and author Caitlin McBride, prominent Irish women share the inspirational stories of the events in their lives that shaped and defined them. Below, in an extract from The Day That Changed My Life, Ireland rugby captain Ciara Griffin tells how she chased her dream of representing her country, only to see it almost snatched away by a freak accident..
If good things come in threes, Ciara Griffin is in for quite the windfall. She is one of Ireland’s most revered athletes. She has represented Ireland at the World Cup and during a Six Nations tournament. She is captain of the Irish women’s rugby team – an incredible feat no matter your age – but it’s made all the more impressive when you realise she was given that call at the tender age of twenty-four.
To say Ciara has earned this glory is an understatement. The blood, sweat and tears that went into making her such an incredible athlete represent a lifetime of effort. ‘For me, there are three stages that led to this end goal,’ Ciara explains. ‘It took me three attempts to make the Irish training squad. I grew up in Kerry where there’s a big football background, but I always loved rugby and it was always my dream to wear the red jersey of Munster and the green jersey of Ireland. ‘From a very young age, that was what I wanted.
The first two times I went for the Irish rugby trials, I didn’t make it. As you can imagine, if that’s your dream growing up, that was hard to take. The first time I put down to still being too young, but I saw the second time as my chance and I still didn’t get it.’ Instead of wallowing, Ciara looked within herself for the mental and physical strength that would later prove so valuable when she went into action on the pitch. She simply wouldn’t accept defeat or give up on her dream. Her only option was to simply work harder. ‘What I took from my second rejection from the training squad was: I could sit on the couch and cry or I could ask them for feedback.
Ciara with the Six Nations trophy
‘I worked my arse off for two and a half years to be better and to work on my weaknesses. ‘It made me tougher. Part of the joy of sport is knowing you can’t control everything. Once I realised that, it was a turning point in my mindset. It’s very easy to give up, but you should keep aiming towards your goals, no matter what they are.’ The emotional stamina it took to come back from a disappointment like that not once, but twice, is wholly reflective of who Ciara is. Since she was seven years old, growing up in Castleisland, Co Kerry, playing rugby with her sister, Aoife, in her family’s back garden, she had two professional goals: wear the red jersey for Munster and green for Ireland. There was no plan B.
‘After I didn’t make it the first two times, it would have been easy for me to not push myself forward. I already had the red of Munster and I was thrilled with that, but I needed to constantly work towards a new goal. ‘I could have stayed in the Munster bubble where everything was going well. I might have been good in my eyes, but at the national level it wasn’t good enough. I was still quite green in rugby terms. ‘It would have been easy for me, after the first two attempts at the squad, to say I tried and that was that.
‘But I didn’t. I just kept going. If you want something hard enough, you do everything within your power to achieve it.’ So Ciara got to work. Before her third trial for the national squad, she was studying for her Master’s in Education at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick – where she had already completed a Bachelor in Education – and was balancing training with studying full-time. She was already adhering to a strict, nutrition-rich diet with intensive training sessions, but needed to push herself harder than before to achieve her life goal. Ciara spent two and a half years either with her head buried in books or strategising her training regimen – researching new, innovative ways to increase her strength and speed.
‘Good wasn’t good enough. Now it was time to be her best. To increase her speed while training, Ciara began wrapping a weightlifting belt around her waist, which was fitted to a chain attached to a tyre, and then she would sprint; this is a hardcore, old-school technique preferred by elite athletes and military divisions around the world. She began racing against her now-fiancé, Damien, and friends to get used to pushing herself in a competitive atmosphere when she was already operating at a loss, because of the weight and bulk of the tyre.
Ciara makes a break during the Six Nations match against Scotland in February 2019. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
‘Things like that paid off. I was trying to get better and stronger Part of the joy of sport is knowing you can’t control everything. Once I realised that, it was a turning point in my mindset. and get into that mental space where you keep going even when your legs and lungs are burning. Those techniques kept me going all that time.’ And they worked.
The third time was the charm. ‘I very clearly remember getting a phone call when they said they wanted to bring me onto the training squad and see what I could do. I’ll never forget. I bawled my eyes out that day. All my hard work had paid off for that one phone call. I can’t describe the joy I felt.’ Ciara showed up on her first day of training alongside veteran players and trailblazers like Fiona Coghlan, who had represented Ireland at three World Cups, and Lynne Cantwell, Ireland’s most capped female player. They were in their natural habitat and Ciara was awestruck that she was now playing alongside her heroes. It would have been a monumental life moment for anyone, but the glory was horribly short-lived as she wound up breaking her leg the first day of training. ‘It was typical. I finally got my chance and that happened.
‘It was during contact – something I do every day. I thought I could run on it and so I ran for a bit but my leg kept giving way and I knew something was wrong. It just broke. It was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone at any time.’ Niamh Briggs (who represented Ireland at two World Cups) made sure she was taken care of and showed her extraordinary care for which, Ciara says, ‘I’ll never be able to thank her enough.’ Ciara’s leg was put in a cast on Sunday and on Monday she was back training with her local club, Munster, focusing exclusively on upper body strength. ‘I could focus on lifting, handoffs, and get stronger in general. I saw that as an opportunity.’ The glass wasn’t half full so much as it was pouring over with potential for Ciara. Every obstacle became an opportunity, every achievement a well-earned gift.
‘You can look in the negative side and get bogged down or you can look at the positive and get the best out of it,’ she says. ‘It’s only going to do you well. I focus on things I can accomplish and control. ‘I got great at hopping on one leg. I’m a very independent person and I knew I had to keep going, put my head down and focus. Those were the best five weeks of training I had done in a long time because I was so focused on getting fitter and stronger. Even though I’d broken a leg, it wasn’t an excuse to slow down.
‘When I went on the rowing machine, I would put my broken leg on a skateboard and row away like that with my hands; I did the assault bike but you can do it with hands only; I set up circuits with boxing and ropes; the gym was so accommodating to me. The time flew because I was so focused on setting new goals for myself, like upping my reps and weights. ‘My leg was sore, sure, but I knew I was going to do better after. I couldn’t start from scratch again; I wanted to catch up with the girls who had been training all along for those five weeks.’
Ciara’s dogged determination was formed at an early age, encouraged by her parents Kathleen and Denis, who drove her around the country to train and never let anything get in the way of following her dream. ‘There was never anything I couldn’t achieve because they supported me one hundred per cent. I played handball a lot as a child and teenager and they drove me all around Kerry to play football.’ Ciara was in her first year of college when she decided she wanted to try out for Munster’s Under-18s rugby squad, but she didn’t have a car and had no way of getting to the venue at Cork Institute of Technology from her college accommodation in Limerick, which was nearly two hours away. So, her dad drove the two hours from Kerry to Limerick, drove her to Cork, dropped her back to Limerick and then went back to Kerry again.
‘Just so I could get a trial.’
On another occasion, she had returned home from college for Christmas and had to train in Fermoy, Co Cork (approximately 90 minutes from her home in Castleisland). Her mother simply volunteered to drive her to and from the training ground with ‘no questions asked’. Kathleen and Denis were well accustomed to their daughter’s athletic ambitions, but when she began playing rugby competitively at the age of fourteen, they realised how deep her love ran for the game. ‘It wasn’t until I was fourteen that we got a rugby club set up in Castleisland.
Being able to train every week, and the possibility of playing a match, was incredible. I used to play all the time at home with my sister, but it was a novelty to train, hitting the bag and running through the muck – it’s muck so obviously it’s not nice but because it’s training, it’s brilliant. ‘It just clicked. I used to play football for a long time, and handball and soccer for many years. When you play a team sport, you get that camaraderie. You’re killing each other one minute and having the craic the next.’ It’s not just the activity, competition and teamwork Ciara loves, but the life experiences you gain as a result. ‘I like rugby because of the discipline. It teaches you great life skills: you never talk back to anyone, or argue with the captain, you speak with respect to your teammates and coach and you don’t give out to each other. You always have each other’s backs. You’re going hard tackling one another and then, afterwards, you shake hands with your opponent. When you come off that field, it’s done.
‘There’s no animosity – only teamwork and respect for the game and the players.’ It’s easy to feel Ciara’s deep-rooted passion for rugby; a sport which is open to men and women but is still ridding itself of the shackles of gender bias from the past. In 2017, women’s rugby competitions began airing on national broadcaster RTÉ after years of being exclusively streamed online.
The women’s squad in particular have brought Ireland some of its most noteworthy sporting moments. In 2013, they received a Triple Crown and Grand Slam; they finished fourth in the World Cup in 2014 and won the 2013 and 2015 Six Nations Championships. ‘Growing up,’ Ciara says, ‘I was always led to believe I could do, and achieve, what I wanted. I’m very lucky in that people around me know and understand the kind of person I am. Even my neighbours are used to seeing me running at all hours of the day and doing all sorts of training on the side of the road.’ Perhaps because of this, Ciara is quick to dismiss any of her experiences of sexism, saying the only struggle she experienced back at home was setting up a girls’ rugby team, which, of course, she eventually did. ‘Here I am living the dream playing rugby under the floodlights of Castleisland. I was very lucky growing up. I think it was the outlook at home was simply do what you want to do: I grew up helping my dad on the farm.
Back then, a woman working in agriculture wasn’t very common but, thankfully, it’s becoming more common now. ‘I was always supported and there was never the attitude of “boys can do this and girls can do that”. I was never taught that and I’ve brought that into my life now, the fact that you can’t be held back by your gender. It’s up to you. If you want to do it, go out and do it.’ It’s as if every day Ciara can’t quite believe her luck that she is living her own dream.
She most certainly never takes even a second for granted, knowing exactly what it took to get there. ‘After I made it on the training squad and was working hard, I got my first cap in my first match in 2016 and I was delighted. A few games later I got my first start at Twickenham, which was a real “pinch me” moment – I couldn’t believe it was happening. Things just started going up from there. ‘It was always a dream of mine to play in a World Cup,’ she says, ‘and I got to play the World Cup match at home, which made it even sweeter.
‘The result didn’t go our way and we didn’t play the way we wanted but still, the chance to say you played in a home World Cup wearing the green jersey while playing against such amazing athletes from other countries is something I’ll always cherish.’ Getting the call to play for the Irish squad may have been the day that changed Ciara’s life, but after that she never dreamed she would become captain. In 2018, she got the life-altering call which asked her to step up to the team’s most senior leadership position. It was a move that ‘blindsided’ her. ‘I was blown away.
From a girl aged five or six playing rugby on the back lawn to wearing an Irish jersey – I never thought I’d get the opportunity to captain such incredible players. ‘People get so scared of following and committing to their dreams, because they’ve worked so hard and there’s a lot to lose – they want to continue on that path. Remember you’re there for a reason and trust yourself. That applies to more than just sport; it applies to life in general. ‘Just be you. There’s only one of you.’ Ciara’s emotional intelligence and mental strength are traits worth admiring, but ones that came as the result of just as much emotional hard work as that sprint-training with the weight of a tyre dragging behind her.
‘It took a lot for me to feel like this. When I was younger, I was very hard on myself and I always saw the negative in things – sometimes I am still too hard on myself. It took a lot for me get to this point. I suffered a lot with confidence, but through sport and backing myself, I got there. I want all girls to feel the same and believe in themselves. ‘I pinch myself every day that I’m here and I’ll do everything I can to stay on this road.’
The Day That Changed My Life by Caitlin McBride is out now, published by Black and White Publishing