From Grassroots to Greenshoots, Blackrock College, Connacht and Ireland Women’s star Meabh Deely talks about the long road from taking early steps in Ballinasloe before her school days in Ardscoil Mhuire, to then donning the jerseys of Blackrock College, Connacht and Ireland.
Deely began her rugby career at a relatively later age as the now 22 year old was just beginning secondary school life, her career has blossomed despite some doors being closed along the way she has smashed barriers to earn the chance to be capped for Ireland along with representing her province at Academy and Senior level, but as she says the early days occurred at home with the formation of Ballinasloe Rugby Club.
“When we were younger, it was two of my friends dad’s that started the club in Ballinasloe, I was on the first ever girls rugby team and it was just two of my friends dad’s started it and just got them basically to get all the footballers from all the different clubs around Ballinasloe to come in and join the team and I really did not take it seriously at all at the start, I was just doing it for the fun and whatever, I would have watched rugby with my dad when I was younger the Six Nations and stuff but like he would have never really even thought oh like there would be a girls rugby team ever in the town.
It didn’t really cross people’s minds until it started and I was about 12 or 13 when I started that and we just started doing really well like myself, Aoibheann Reilly, Beibhinn Parsons and Emily Galvin we were all on the same team so it was some team like we used to hammer every team around Connacht.”
Balancing the early days of playing club rugby she also was attending Ardscoil Mhuire but a link between the two would see rugby become available to the students down to the work of Connacht CRDO Dermot Tierney who pushed for a team in the school which the students many of whom were in that Ballinasloe team were only excited by, Deely says however the school at the early stages were a little bit thrown by the request.
“The club really pushed to get rugby in the School, cause it wasn’t really much of a thing like our school didn’t really they were like what?, then Dermot Tierney he really pushed for it, he was working for Connacht at the time as the CCRO and Connacht I think wanted to get more rugby in the school so he was brilliant, he came down like two times a week to train us in the school.
Like it was basically training three times a week with the same team like everyone was playing with the club and the school and we stayed doing those Blitzes and Tournaments stuff like that and I think I was in fifth year when we won the All Ireland that was a big year in 2018 in November we went on and won the All Ireland Schools Sevens with Ardscoil Mhuire. Schools rugby has really picked up since, I really think we were pioneers in that sense,we pushed for it and started it a lot of us are still playing today so it was great.”
Alongside Deely were Aoibheann Reilly, Beibhinn Parsons and Emily Galvin in that Ardscoil team which went on to win the inaugural Connacht Girls Schools’ Rugby League back in 2019, naturally delighted to have been made captain Deely found rugby life within the school an enjoyable one and it almost never felt like it was part of school life at times.
“It was kind of funny because it almost felt like we weren’t on a school trip, Dermot used to come, my mam used to come because you had to have a woman and a girl called Angela Flaherty she was an SNA in the school, so she wasn’t really a teacher so it was almost like we weren’t on a school trip it was more like a club trip, sure Dermot was great craic it was just quite relaxed and chilled out it was kinda fun not having a teacher there if that makes sense, you kinda got these escapes and I love rugby and it was just a different environment and it was like being back at club really but it was in school it was nice I enjoyed it.”
A diary was needed in the Deely household to keep up to date with all the various rugby related activities as Maebh would venture into trying out for the Connacht underage teams, however it would not prove successful on the first occasion, an early first bump in the road but one that would not stop her as she would eventually get the call to be a feature in the team.
“When I played U15 we won the Connacht Final three years in a row and it was when I went up to U18’s, I was like 16 I went to Connacht Trials and I actually didn’t make the squad that year, I got dropped but I got called back in so I played that year at 16 I was on the bench most of the time as like a Winger.
Then the second year of Connacht I got picked again and I was more of a 10 and I was playing with Ballinasloe at the time we were still hammering everyone, Westport were our biggest rivals and they started getting much better like in that U18 kind of team, a lot of the girls I would have played against are on our current Connacht team and we have become great friends since, cause we all kind of conjoined on that Connacht team and it was really on Westport and Ballinasloe that were the strongest teams so the squad was made up of Westport and Ballinasloe girls.”
Going back to 15’s rugby the next step in her progression up the ladder with Connacht was the Senior team, having impressed in the underage system she would get selected after the trials to become a member of the Senior squad, 18 and fresh faced going into the squad was daunting but she describes her debut as being a very nervous occasion, but Nicole Fowley would be a big influence on her in those early days.
“I did my Leaving Cert and I was overage then so I stopped playing rugby a little bit, I stayed playing with the club but not with Connacht as I was overage, that following year I went for trials with the Senior team I made it, I was the backup 10 for most of that summer cause Nicole was there and she was very experienced she played for Ireland a lot of times at that point and I learned a lot off her she was so good to me, sometimes you go into a position and you’ve got a rival and their not very nice to you but I think Nicole was the opposite she really helped me out.
I remember the Friday before our first game we were playing Leinster in Donnybrook, Nicole rang me and was like I’m after tearing my calf, I was like Oh…. No…. and she was like you’re going to be starting tomorrow and I was like Oh My God like I was 18 at the time just fresh and 10 is a big position to go on and start in like and I was really nervous she was so helpful those first few games because she was completely out, she came back in for the last game then, in fairness like I was thrown in at the deep end and I learned an awful lot in those Interpros those five games, we had really good coaching and had a really good season that year we ended up beating Munster in the semi finals which was incredible and then we got the final and just lost out to Leinster.”
Having played a lot with Connacht, moving into the Sevens programme saw Deely move to Dublin to continue that and also study in Trinity College, with that she would grow playing Women’s AIL with Blackrock to state a claim to make the Ireland team one day, that dream came in August 2022, but it was a long road as Deely explains.
“I got my Sevens Cap in June just this year, which was a weird summer because I got my Sevens Cap in June and my 15’s Cap in August, but in July I actually got dropped from both squads, people don’t know that, I didn’t get my Sevens contract renewed and then I was still training with the Japan squad but I hadn’t got picked at that point and they just decided not to bring me.
I remember sitting down with my Mam and Dad talking about it and I was like it’s going to go one way or the other here, you either just completely step back from an international stage and just enjoy your college and enjoy Blackrock or my Mum was like or you can stay going to these training sessions on Tuesday and Thursday with the squad and prove to them that you deserve to be in that squad.
I remember at the time I was like I just don’t want to do this I don’t want to like train I dunno I just felt so bad about myself, I was like do I even want to continue this but I talked to a lot of girls, the older girls as well Laura Feely was really good to talk to and they kind of instilled a lot of confidence in me that I was good enough to go and I just needed to prove to these coaches that I was because they hadn’t seen a lot of me in fairness.
I went to one screening camp and I hadn’t played 15’s in about four or five months, I was like I’ll go I’ll enjoy the training and if I don’t end up going to Japan I can prove that they should have picked me, I can prove myself and then a few weeks after training Greg rang me and was like we’ve got an injury and I’d like you to come, it felt like everything I had worked hard for was finally paying off, I really had to grind to get on that squad really glad I did in the end, Japan was an unreal experience I will never forget it.”
Having won the Women’s AIL with Blackrock this season, Deely turned her attention to 2023, injury had halted her from playing in the Interpro’s in January but she made a return late in the Celtic Cup series then featured in the Women’s Six Nations, she now looks to keep forging a career within the sport.