I caught up with Claire McLaughlin for our second interview in our series mapping the journey from club to country and, hopefully, into a World Cup.
Our paths first crossed in 2010 but it wasn’t until late 2011 when Claire got her first Ulster cap that I started to take notice of the young centre at Cooke. However, it was during her time at Queen’s where Claire really began to shine being at the forefront of their push to AIL 1 status. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a harder working player.
A busy woman, I caught up with Claire for a quick chat, just after one of her many gym sessions.
How did you get started in rugby?
“I started playing with Ballymoney RFC when I seventeen, when I was still at Coleraine High. It was just for a bit of fun at the time, I was already playing hockey and football, but I got into tag rugby, and loved it, and when Ballymoney set up a team that was me hooked. I think it was 2009-2010.
“I then went to Queen’s University the next year I had to decide whether to play hockey or rugby. Well, it wasn’t really that difficult a decision as rugby was what I wanted to go for and the real decision was which club to play for- either Queens University or Cooke. Queens were development side at that stage and I decided to go to Cooke to get better experience. They were an AIL team at that stage and I that year that I got my first cap for Ulster. “
When did you start to think about taking it further?
“When I started playing I didn’t really have Ireland as my goal. I was just really enjoying playing rugby and I thought that Ulster was my limit. However, over the years playing for Cooke, playing for Ulster and then moving to Queens, playing under those different coaches, helped me develop as a player. Then when I got to my fourth year at University I took a year out of medicine, to do a different degree, and I found I had more time for focusing on my rugby- more time for going to the gym and more time for getting fit and improving my skills, and I think it was then that things started moving forward and progressing for me.
“I then got picked up by the Irish selectors and got down into camp for the first time late in 2014. There were 60 of us there at that first camp and I got cut at the first stage. I wasn’t skillful enough and I wasn’t fit enough and I knew myself that I wasn’t quite there with my confidence and my presence on the pitch. As a young player, the first time in Irish camp can be quite intimidating with so many experienced players, they’d just come off a couple of very successful seasons with the Grand Slam in 2013 and fourth in the World Cup in 2014, so I just felt like a complete newbie!
“The following year (2015) I got brought back in and I got selected for a friendly against England at the Stoop and I thought I was going to be getting my first cap! I sat on the bench, and continued to sit on the bench (laughs). So that was a bit of a kick in the teeth for me but that disappointment spurred me on to work harder and put my hand up for selection for the Six Nations.
“So it came round to the Six Nations and I thought right maybe now. But no, I had to go into hospital for a (minor) heart procedure at the start of the Six Nations. Thankfully though I was available for the last two games and I got my first cap against Italy – it was a bit of a roller-coaster that year (laughs) but it all worked out in the end!“
So you’re now sitting on six caps and a squad regular, when fit. How have you found the camps ahead of the World Cup?
“It’s great – the atmosphere in the camp is really good, and there’s a real air of nervous excitement. The intensity of training has increased massively in the past few months, and I think that being in training camp together more often and pushing ourselves to the limit and beyond has helped develop us as a squad and bring us closer together. At the weekend we played an inter squad game, everyone was involved, and it was interesting to see how everyone gelled. Everyone is nervously waiting on the squad to be announced now! “
You qualified as a doctor last year and you are now working at The Mater Hospital, how have you been able to combine work with rugby?
“It’s been a constant struggle (laughs). I thought that being a medical student and training for the Six Nations was difficult but this year has been much more challenging. It’s been difficult fitting everything in. Some weeks working 50-60 hours in the hospital then fitting in two gym sessions, two running sessions, a bike session, skills and then going down to Dublin at the weekend. It’s been tough going.
“Starting work as a doctor is stressful no matter what and it’s a complete shock to the system as there is only so much that placement can get you ready for, so that in itself was pretty difficult . In August of last year, when I started, I was injured at that stage, so I was rehabbing and I was also doing extras to make sure I wasn’t falling behind the rest of the squad during preseason. I was trying to do eight or nine training sessions per week on top of working and I completely ran myself ragged.
“I’ve adapted more now, I know my limitations and sometimes I have to cut back a bit in training if I’m overloaded in work. I also try to schedule in some time to chill out and socialise, but that can often be difficult to fit in!!”
And how have they been in work?
“They’ve been extremely helpful and allowed me to schedule my annual leave round the rugby, but I’ve still had to do a lot of swaps with colleagues to get time off for training. They’ve been very good about it, but they’ve given me the name ‘McSwaplin’ (laughs), so I’m well known for doing a few swaps.
“The doctors at the Mater (Hospital) have been very supportive, they are always asking how training is going and they are talking about getting tickets for the World Cup. Hopefully some of them will be there.”
And on that, how would you feel running out for Ireland at the Kingspan in front of 15,000 supporters?
“That’ll be unbelievable. I don’t know if I’ve fully grasped what it’ll be like – I’ve never played in that sort of environment. Obviously I’ve played at UCD and Donnybrook when they have been full, but a big crowd at the Kingspan and having the home support cheering for Ireland will be pretty special.”
I’m sure it would mean a lot to your family, how have they been?
“They’ve been so supportive – I barely get to go home so the most I’ve got to see my parent this year is when they come and watch me play rugby (laughs). They are really great role models- they don’t put pressure on me, they just want me to be happy and as rugby is one of those things that I’ve decided I want to do they are fully behind me with it.”
Finally, which players have influenced you the most over the years?
“Grace Davitt has to be up there. She’s played centre for Ireland, I played with her for Ulster and Cooke, I’ve been coached by her, she’s done it all.
“She was a great player and she was a great example for me in how hard she worked at training. Whenever we trained at Cooke she was always putting everything into every session. For her it was never just club training, it was giving your all. It was probably Grace who taught me so much about leg drive- she always said, “Never stop pumping your legs, when you go into contact you keep driving! Drive, drive, drive!” (laughs). Defensively, I’ve learnt a lot from Grace, especially with communication on the pitch. She’s certainly someone I look up too and she’s taught me a lot.
“I also think Sene (Naoupu) is a great player. I would love to be more skillful and have a bit of flair like Sene has. I suppose that comes with years of playing and having a ball in your hand from when you were five years old.”
Always a pleasure to sit down with Claire, who along with the rest of the current squad, will spend an anxious weekend as the World Cup squad is finalised. Having witnessed her hard work and her dedication on the field over the last few years I’m sure that her efforts will be rewarded.