Richard Bullick

Any realistic chance of former Sacred Heart head girl Eliza Downey featuring for Ireland at this month’s women’s rugby World Cup on home soil effectively ended when the Ulster vice-captain broke a bone in her foot in last December’s opening interpro. However the former Down ladies gaelic captain, who has happy memories of scoring two tries against Scotland at the 2010 tournament, is really looking forward to the forthcoming feast of rugby rather than wondering what might have been. “I’m very excited about this tournament and absolutely buzzing for the girls getting the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a World Cup on Irish soil with packed crowds behind them,” enthuses the Annaclone woman. “Watching the World Cup will bring back memories of 2010 and I’ve played with and against most of this present squad but rather than being jealous I’m just looking forward to enjoying the games as an Irish supporter. There’ll be big expectations on Ireland as the host nation and after finishing fourth last time but pressure is something top sportspeople thrive on and, with a strong core of experienced players in the group, I think they’ll cope pretty well. “They’re grounded girls who won’t get carried away with the hype but keep their full focus on the work which needs done.  It’s important too that they can switch on and off for training and matches because being too intense 24/7 for three and a half weeks would be exhausting. “These are serious sportswomen but there’ll be time for healthy banter too within the group.  Thankfully the most senior players are very approachable people who will guide the younger girls through what might be a new and daunting experience and take them under their wing. “You’re a long time together and it can be a real emotional roller-coaster, especially for less established players fighting for their place, but everybody has to be right mentally and physically for the call coming at any time,” says Downey who went from fringe figure seven years ago to Player of the Match in the final fixture. “At that tournament I went from being outside the matchday 22 (as it was then) to playing the last three games and getting three tries.  There were so many memorable moments – my first World Cup cap, my first try and then scoring twice against Scotland as we won to secure seventh place.” As a young girl growing up, Downey always loved sport, whether watching her childhood hero Linford Christie and other stars on television, or playing herself, and the talented teenager first featured for Down at adult level in ladies gaelic way back in 2001 at the tender age of 15. “I only took up playing rugby at the end of university, got asked to trial for Ulster before I even had a club and next thing I was starting in the interpros.  The interpros went well for us so that season I got called into the Irish set-up to train,” Eliza explains. “I got my first taste of international rugby off the bench in the 2010 Six Nations but I still didn’t expect to make the World Cup panel, which was 26 players in those days.  Looking back I was thrown in at the deep end but it proved a very rewarding and enjoyable experience.” Having enjoyed a meteoric rise to the Irish squad ahead of that tournament, Downey has actually never pulled on the green jersey in the seven years since that Scottish triumph due to a combination of injuries, international travel and returning her other sporting passion of gaelic football. She had captained the Down ladies team to the NFL Division Two title in 2009 and, having been sidelined by torn ligaments for many months in the year after the World Cup, returned for a second spell as skipper of the Mournewomen in 2012. At that stage Downey was working for the Ladies Gaelic Football Association but she embarked upon the trip of a lifetime that autumn, taking in South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. “Sport has been huge the whole way through my life from primary school and is something I’ve made sacrifices for and got great rewards from but other things that are important to me too including travel and getting to see other cultures. “I was away for about 18 months and among the highlights was getting to work on the Australian Grand Prix which was great experienced for me professionally for me as someone pursuing a career in event management and sports development.” She hadn’t consciously written off the 2014 women’s rugby World Cup but being away for so long in the lead-up meant it wasn’t an option and anyway Eliza had unfinished business with Down to focus on when she returned home. “When I got back I was straight into Down’s drive to finally get to that All Ireland Intermediate final we’d had our sights set on right through my inter-county career so I gave that my full focus,” she recalls. Of course that World Cup proved very special for Ireland with that famous upset of a seemingly invincible New Zealand team which hadn’t been beaten at the tournament since 1991 ensuring immortality for that heroic group of girls in green. “I remember trying to hold off on leaving for county training until the very last minute that evening and jumping up and down on the couch when Alison Miller went over for that try then getting in the car and driving to Newry. “When I chatted to the girls, some of them had been watching it too, which was great, though obviously it meant more to me,” says Eliza for whom missing out was offset by a very special silver lining a few weeks later when Down won the All Ireland Intermediate decider. For a sportsperson from a big gaelic games background, running out on the hallowed turf of Croke Park was a lifetime dream and she played an important part in Down claiming the silverware with the All Star nomination which followed being the icing on the cake for the experienced defender. Unlike her old schoolmate Caroline O’Hanlon, another multi-talented local sportswoman who plays ladies gaelic and netball, Downey has tended to prioritise one or other for her sports for particular periods rather than combining both on an ongoing basis. “Everybody’s different but that was what worked for me.  I never really enjoyed juggling and felt like I needed to give my whole self emotionally to one thing at a time to make the most effective contribution. “That said it has obviously been difficult to stop playing gaelic or rugby for particular periods especially as each of those teams mean a lot to me but thankfully I haven’t encountered any real resentment from people in either code. “I was always up front about my plans and what I was going to commit to and in return I found that my choices were respected.  I’m proud that there were Ulster rugby people came to watch me playing gaelic in Croke Park”.  Engaging and affable by nature, Eliza understandably bristles slightly at any implication that she may share responsibility for the hapless state of Down ladies football following the break-up of that Intermediate title-winning team of 2014. “We’d done our time, the experienced players, and I was always retiring after that campaign but unfortunately an awful lot of other girls left too for whatever reason and that was why Down were exposed so badly in senior football the next season,” she says. A rugby return was always on the cards, for Belfast club Cooke in the All Ireland League and also Ulster though getting back in the green jersey for this home World Cup wasn’t a set target of Eliza’s even before last December’s foot fracture. Although Ulster have been the weakest province in recent years, Downey was happy with the team and her own personal performance in the opening game against Munster at Kingspan but the injury meant she had no further opportunities to make an impression. So she wasn’t in the frame for this World Cup and doesn’t expect Ireland’s call in the future but intends to keep playing for Ulster where her experience can help bring through some of the talented youngsters, including Armag camog Leah McGoldrick, who won the Under 18 interpro title last season. The hope is that this World Cup being held in Dublin and Belfast will leave a real legacy for women’s rugby and Downey is confident the tournament will make a big impression on the sporting public. “We’ve seen the entire country get caught up in Irish success, be it the cricket team a few years ago or the two soccer sides last summer, and the recent women’s cricket World Cup has shown that support for women’s sport is on the rise. “The Irish women’s rugby team has had outstanding success over the last few years with the historic 2013 Grand Slam, beating New Zealand in the World Cup and another Six Nations title, and that has helped promote this tournament. “Ireland’s three group games in Dublin are all sold out but thankfully they’re all televised live both on RTE2 and ITV4 and the hope is that the host nation are still in contention to win the World Cup when the tournament moves up north for the second phase”. Only one runner-up will join the three Pool winners in the semi-finals so Ireland will likely have to top a strong group which contains Olympic sevens champions Australia (tomorrow, Wed 7pm), emerging Japan (Sun, 5.15pm) and the formidable French (next Thur, 7.45pm) to emulate their top four finish last time. Unlike in the men’s World Cup, every team keeps playing for a specific placing so, regardless of results, the Ireland women will be in action at Kingspan Stadium on August 22 and August 26 when the final takes place.  Tickets are still available for both days. Ireland have suffered a bad blow with iconic captain Niamh Briggs being ruled out of the entire tournament by injury nine days before the opening game.  Replacement captain Claire Molloy and former Donegal gaelic star Nora Stapleton are among only three survivors from Downey’s World Cup class of 2010. Castlewellan woman Ashleigh Baxter, on the wing for the 2014 win over New Zealand, and centre Claire McLaughlin from Bushmills, are Eliza’s only current Ulster colleagues in Tom Tierney’s squad of 28 for the 12-team tournament. Incidentally Downey will be lining out for the Ireland Legends side against their English counterparts at Malone Rugby Club in Belfast the night before the World Cup final!