It’s just over two months since Kate and Siobhán McCarthy were part of the rugby team that won the All-Ireland League (AIL) Women’s Division. The identical twins from Co Clare play for Dublin-based Railway Union, who saw off Blackrock in the final.
Having achieved such a feat, you would be forgiven for thinking that these sisters are lifelong players of the game. However, they only started playing rugby in college a few years ago.
Growing up in Clooney, both were always sporty, with an enduring interest in horses, as well as playing football and camogie with their club Clooney-Quin.
Alongside sport they also always had an interest in farming. Their father works for a feed mill in Limerick, they grew up beside their aunt’s dairy farm and they still relief milk for a neighbour. They also both undertook agriculture PhDs – but more on that later.
Kate took a gap year after secondary school, going to work on a stud farm in England. She came back a year later to study ag in University College Dublin (UCD). After her Leaving Cert, Siobhán went on to study genetics in University College Cork (UCC).
Here’s where the rugby comes in. It was 2013 and the Ireland ladies had won the Grand Slam.
“There was a big buzz around it,” recalls Siobhán, who last year played Interpro with Munster. “Myself and my housemate at the time went down to the first trial [in college]. Sure from there it was great craic.
“That was in UCC and the following January I joined Shannon as a club. I was with them for more or less four years until I moved to Dublin. Kate picked it up then when she came back. It was good fun. I said you should try it.”
Being away in college, it was difficult to keep up riding horses, Kate says, and rugby was a good substitution. Both Kate and Siobhán played with Shannon for a time before going to Railway Union.
They’re big advocates of picking up a sport no matter what your age.
“A lot of girls who join Railway or Leinster have been playing since they were underage,” Siobhán says. “Whereas when I started in college no one had played. It was an outreach thing really to get people into the game, hoping people would filter on into clubs.
“We’ve actually had two girls come since the final and join Railway. One girl was playing football with a club in Roscommon and she joined up. She’s gyming with us every morning. Honestly, I think rugby is genuinely for everybody. There are so many positions on the pitch. It’s all about throwing yourself into it and not being afraid to get stuck in. Any skill can be learned at any time.”
Sitting down with Kate and Siobhán, it’s instantly evident they’re very humble. Both sisters also very much tell it like it is.
When asked about the lie of the land for women in sport, they’re not afraid to give their opinions – which I can assure you are coming from two women who are well-informed on the topic. The sheer volume of information they provide I cannot do justice to within the parameters of these pages.
They both agree that in women’s rugby there’s a long way to go.
For those who don’t follow rugby that closely, it has been a turbulent time of late for the Ireland women’s team. Late last year a group of prominent players from the Ireland women’s team signed a letter to the Government that said they had “lost all trust and confidence in the IRFU and its leadership after historic failings”.
In recent weeks the IRFU released the recommendations of a report into the failure of the Ireland women’s team to qualify for the World Cup. The report was not released in full.
Siobhán says the recommendations, such as putting in place a full-time coach, are “just cop on” and that these ‘recommendations should have already been in place for an international team.
“Wales [women’s team] got contracts before Christmas and they’ve won two games on the trot. They were a wooden spoon last year in the women’s. I’m not saying contracts are the answer but resources, time, recovery and adequate training works. It can close the gap quickly.”
They also discuss another recent rugby issue – the decision to remove a vote from a Munster Branch AGM that would grant senior status to clubs competing in the Women’s AIL. This would bring Munster in line with Leinster, Connacht and Ulster, who already made the change.
Kate explains: “If you play in the AIL, there’s a men’s and women’s league. Anyone who plays in the men’s league is considered a senior club and you get access to bonuses that come with that, especially funding and international tickets for the Irish games. If you’re a women’s team and you play in the AIL you are not considered senior in Munster only.”
Siobhán gives her opinion on the matter: “The [lack of a] Munster vote was hugely disappointing, it was misogynistic and it was really backward. They can dress it up whatever way they like but that’s what it is. There’s a lot of change to happen. This isn’t a Munster thing, this is a rugby issue and it’s an IRFU issue.”
While Kate and Siobhán call things as they see them, they also praise as they find them. They compliment TG4 for the channel’s coverage of women’s sports in general. Kate also highlights the many female sports role models there are,such as international rugby player Lindsay Peat and Meath footballer Vikki Wall, to name just two.
PhDs & farming
With all that said, Kate says she stands over her opinion that it’s easier to be a woman in farming than in sport. As mentioned earlier, although Kate and Siobhán might not have grown up on a farm, they grew up with strong farming. Both their parents are from farms and their father now has 10ac on which he keeps calves.
Siobhán has just finished a PhD in the area of molecular biology. Undertaken between UCD and Teagasc Ashtown, it was in food safety, looking at E.coli collected from sheep.
Kate will be finished the research for her PhD shortly and it’s due at the end of the summer. With UCD on Lyons Farm, she’s researching multispecies swards and their ability to reduce nitrogen. Completing a PhD was in Kate’s head after doing work placement in college on two research farms in France.
Love of animals
Animals, both bovine and equine, were always a part of Kate and Siobhán’s childhood. Siobhán reminisces about the “cracked” Limousine heifer Kate bought with her Communion money. They both also always had a few horses and ponies on the go.
“Our summer was that you’d buy a pony, try to do something with it and turn it over for the end of the year,” Kate explains. “I’ve a mare at home I’m still breeding off.
“Daddy must have 20 sucky calves at home now. He bucket rears them and then we’d turn them over again next October or maybe this time next year. I’m going home now the weekend to go fencing. I love fencing. Daddy, not so much,” she laughs.
Siobhán was the first of the two to start relief milking but it wasn’t long before her job was snapped-up by her sister.
“I did a summer with our neighbour down the road. Then I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), so I couldn’t walk for a few weeks. Kate swooped in then,” Siobhán laughs.
Kate takes up the story: “I had come back from my gap year and said: ‘That’ll do me.’ Adrian, he’s been great. He’s taught me everything.
“He has such patience because the first summer I was there I played with Munster and I would milk early and tip on down to training in Cork. He didn’t mind. Even now with games I might milk early on a Saturday and tip on up to Dublin for a match.”
From rugby to relief milking and research PhDs, Kate and Siobhán McCarthy certainly have plenty on the go to keep them busy. Though you’d scarcely know it by them.
They say they’re looking forward to Sea Sessions in Bundoran this summer and there might be a few more horses at some stage on the horizon. Who knows.