Offaly women playing frontal role in rugby revolution

A RUGBY revolution is underway with the womens’ game becoming increasingly popular. Participation levels are increasing across the country and standards are rising accordingly.

Ireland is becoming more competitive at international level and they will improve further in the coming years as more women are drawn to the game.

Offaly players are making their presence felt with a number of players from the county capped at international level while others have played provincial rugby. There is an impressive list of women from the county who have represented Ireland at international level.

Caroline Mahon, an Offaly native with powerful Killoughey and Rahan blood was the first in January 2006, followed by Tullamore’s Yvonne Nolan that February and Shinrone’s Jeannette Feighery in April 2006. The next was Walsh Island woman, Niamh Kavanagh in March 2011 with Kilcormac’s Nichola Fryday making her debut in November 2016. Ailsa Hughes (Tullamore) was 2017, Ballinahown’s Michelle Claffey 2018 and another Tullamore women, Shannon Touhey the latest in November 2021. They are all full womens’ internationals while Niamh Kavanagh and Jeannette Feighery also excelled at the sevens game, playing in a number of tournaments for Ireland. Tullamore woman Megan Burns has also been an outstanding sevens international, making her debut in June 2018.

Womens’ rugby has also become firmly established in Tullamore. They have competed in the All-Ireland League, though they are now in the Leinster League and they are flying this season.

The trend setter was Caroline Mahon, though she has spent most of her life in Kilkenny. She was born in Offaly, spending her first year in Rahan before her family moved to Kilkenny and she has very much regarded herself as an Offaly woman – her family retain great memories of her being brought to the 1982 All-Ireland football final as a baby and the excitement with her grandmother, parents and uncles when Seamus Darby scored his famous winning goal.

Her father Hugh Mahon is from a well known Killoughey family, her mother, Mary is a Kearney from a very popular Rahan family. They moved to Kilkenny when Caroline was one years of age after Hugh got transferrred with Teagasc. She played second row for Ireland, featuring in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and played most of her club rugby with University of Limerick Bohemians, having initially started in Kilkenny. She played every game with UL Bohs as they won 10 All-Ireland League titles in a row and also played with Leinster. She has stayed in rugby as a coach since her playing career ended – she taught PE and maths at Newbridge College where she coached future Leinster players such as James Treacy and Jimmy O’Brien. She now teaches in Kilkenny College while she also coaches camogie teams in Dicksboro.

Yvonne Nolan also played in 2006 and she has a very interesting rugby story. She played well before womens’ rugby got established in her native Tullamore. She played at hooker with Leinster and Old Belvedere from 2001 to 2010 and won 24 Irish caps. She was also assistant coach to Leinster women in 2014, she has coached Old Belvedere in the All-Ireland League since retiring and now works as Deputy General Counsel with World Rugby.

Jeannette Feighery completed the hat trick of international debuts for Offaly women in 2006 and continued to excel into the 2010s – she also played camogie for Offaly and is still playing for her club Shinrone. She starred at both the sevens and 15-a-side games – she was scrum half/out half in sevens and played in the center or wing in the full game.

She started playing with Roscrea RFC, staying with them for two seasons when 18-19 years of age. She then moved to University of Limerick Bohemians, winning several All-Ireland League and Cup titles as well as captaining them. She is one of the small group of people who has played both sevens and fifteen-a-side rugby at international level – She has twenty caps in the full game and has played over ten games for the Irish sevens side.

From Shinrone, Feighery is one of a handful of Offaly women who started their sporting careers with camogie and then made their mark in other sports. Most of these have retained a great love for camogie and returned to the sport after achieving international recognition in other codes. That was the case here as injury ended her rugby career in 2014. Now living in Waterford and a mother of a young child, she returned to play junior camogie with Shinrone last season even though the commute wasn’t simple and she still had to manage injuries. She was a county standard camogie player earlier in her career, combining that with rugby for a while and she played with Offaly in their 2001 All-Ireland junior final defeat by Tipperary. She also won two Ashbourne Cups, the camogie equivalent of the Fitzgibbon Cup, while studying in UL.

Niamh Kavanagh made her international debut in 2011 and won several caps in the 2010s – she also has a handful of international sevens’ appearances. The Walsh Island woman took up rugby around 2010 while studying law and tax at University of Limerick. Her first introduction was at the Tullamore Tag Rugby League, when she played for Hugh Lynch’s pub where she did part time work.

Womens rugby only got established in Tullamore from 2013 and she initially played with UL Bohemians winning All-Ireland League, All-Ireland Cup and Munster Cup medals with them. She later played for Munster and was part of the Irish squad that won the Grand Slam in 2013. A winger, she scored several important tries at all levels and Kavanagh’s brother Anthony also won Irish caps at U-19 and 21 level.

Kavanagh is a member of the Board of Directors of UL Bohs, PRO for the club, and women’s representative on the main committee, as well as being on the Munster women’s committee. She has just returned to playing again with Bohs after an injury.

Kilcormac woman Nichola Fryday has emerged as one of the best rugby players from Offaly. At the time of writing, she has 22 caps and she has also played with Tullamore, Galweigians, Old Belvedere, Blackrock, and Connacht. She has now moved to Exeter Chiefs in England and she won her first Irish cap against Canada in 2016 when she was the first Tullamore member to play for the senior side.

Ailsa Hughes has won 13 caps at the time of writing and plays with Railway Union and Leinster. She was an excellent camogie player, winning All-Ireland medals with Offaly before opting to concentrate on rugby. She helped establish the oval ball game in Tullamore before moving to Railway Union as she bid to progress her career. A scrum half, she won her first Irish cap in 2017.

Michelle Claffey has emerged as a key player with both Leinster and Ireland. She comes from a cherished GAA background and her uncle Kieran Claffey was midfield on the Offaly side that won their first All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 1971. She played ladies football with Offaly but took up rugby while studying economics and finance at University of Limerick when 21 years of age. After completing her degree and moving to Dublin to work, she joined Blackrock College RFC in 2010 and really began to progress from here. Two gruesome cruciate injuries, one of each knee, slammed the brakes on but she recovered superbly – showing she has what it takes by putting in the intense work, much of it alone, to recover from ACL injuries. This was followed by debuts for Leinster and Ireland and the center has shown her quality at every opportunity. She was the Leinster vice-captain in 2021.

Incidentally Hughes and Claffey both came into opposition when they played on opposing sides in the Energia Women’s All-Ireland League Final recently. It ended with Hughes smiling as she scored two crucial tries for Railway Union in their 24-18 win over the Michelle Claffey captained Blackrock College. It was a great performance by Hughes and the quality of her two tries, one in each half, lit up the evening.

Shannon Touhey is another camogie player who is now making her mark in rugby. A camogie goalkeeper, she has played with Offaly and won an intermediate championship with Tullamore in 2021 – a year when she also made her international debut. Camogie and ladies football were her first sporting loves but rugby drew her in after she was introduced to it at U-18 level in 2015. She played sevens rugby with Leinster and Ireland U-18s but the full sized game is where she is best. She played with Connacht and Suttonians before fulfilling a dream when winning an Irish cap against Japan last year. She has since returned to play with Tullamore while she has also traveled to England to play for London Wasps in 2022.

Megan Burns has made her presence felt in the sevens game. The Tullamore player was part of the Ireland side that won the U-18 Home Nations Trophy in 2018 while she won a bronze medal with Ireland at the Rugby Europe Vichy Sevens the same year. She made her senior Irish sevens debut at the Rugby Europe Grand Prix in Kazan in 2018 and has since established herself as an outstanding sevens international. She took up rugby at U-15 level with Tullamore in 2015 and developed her game over the following years – she has also played dual status rugby with Blackrock in the All-Ireland League and her dream is to compete with Ireland in the World Cup and Olympic rugby sevens in the coming few years – she is studying physiotherapy at UCD.

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