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Interview: Irish Grand Slam winner Leigh Dargan on the mother of all triumphs

Ireland win-nSOMETIMES the Gods of journalism smile on even the trade’s lowliest exponents. 

Garry MacManus from the Irish Exiles is on the phone. “Would you like to interview Leigh Dargan?”

Leigh Dargan. Came on as a sub for Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning women’s team in their games against England and Scotland. Yeah… definitely could be interesting.

“She’s 31,” he adds. “Has two kids and only really took up the game three years ago.”

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Contact details please! We have just struck oil without leaving the desk.

A couple of weeks later we’re sat in a café in Camden Town. Dargan, smart in business attire. Me, somewhat less than smart.

She’s ready for another day on the road with Proximo, the legal expense firm with whom she is a regional manager. She deals mainly with stockbrokers and hackney cab drivers — so it’s a plush central London office one day and an East End garage the next. It’s good job to have; out and about at least four days a week and no two weeks are the same.

In a perfect world, she’d be a professional rugby player. In the real one, this job is ideal. She has already blurred the line between fantasy and reality by going from almost zero to winning the Grand Slam in three years.

We say almost zero because she had some background for the game. Dad David, from Belfast, introduced her to the game in childhood.

“I played as a kid for a couple of years. I’ve got brothers, so my dad said you might as well join in with them. I gave up because there was no girls’ team and you had to stop playing with the boys at 11. Then I did athletics… had the kids.”

Then 17 years later… “It was just, one of the neighbours was taking her lad down and said, ‘They’ve got a women’s team’, so it started from there.” The local club was Millwall, near home on the Isle of Dogs. The second-row forward progressed to Saracens.

The next step on the ladder to the Grand Slam was The Exiles.

“One of the girls from Saracens, Kerry Ann Craddock really got it started. She texted me one day. ‘Got any Irish?’ ‘Yep, I have.’
“She said, ‘We’re starting the Exiles, a pathway for the girls over here to get in the Ireland squad.’ It’s just started from there, they’ve been brilliant.
“I only started with the Exiles to help the girls out, to get a team running. I never thought that I’d play for Ireland.

“But Goose [manager, Philip Doyle] came over and watched a session. He picked a few out, me and a few others. I got named in the 44 two years ago”

Then, just when Dargan’s momentum seemed irresistible, it was abruptly checked. She broke her leg.

“It was difficult because I’d just started a new job,” she says. “I was wondering would I go back. But I just thought, ‘Look, I’ve got nothing to lose, I’m going to give it another try’, and yeah, I got named in the squad this year…”

Attaining and maintaining the physical condition to represent Ireland means a lot more than not going to the pub after work on a Friday night. First thing on weekday mornings before work and before her kids (Cian, 13 and Lacie, seven) go to school, Dargan is in her apartment complex’s gym doing a workout. On top of that there is a strength and conditioning programme set by Ireland. During the Six Nations the games comes fast. On the rare weekends off it’s back to Saracens for a Sunday match.

The effort has been repaid many times over with a Grand Slam medal. Even without the gold disk, the chance to be part of this team, this squad, is a huge reward for Dargan.

“It’s been brilliant. Even the girls in my position will sit down and go through the lineout calls. In club rugby you might get three calls. Here you’ve got to learn 15. The girls in your position will help though. It’s a team in Ireland.”

And she wouldn’t want to play for any other international team. Asked whether she would have joined the England set-up if asked, she says:  “No, I’m way too old for the England setup. They’re looking for the young guns, the under-20s. I think they reckon 21 is old coming into the sport, let alone someone who’s 28.

“I had a conversation with Goose. I said, ‘I’m 10 years older than some of the girls’. He was like, ‘I don’t see your age as an issue. I see it as a positive.’ He’s got that mindset where you can play regardless of age.”

That mindset helped Ireland to beat England 25-0 on the way to Championship glory. The girls in white were depleted of key personnel for that fixture due to them focussing on Sevens. Dargan though points out England still had “50-odd caps” more than Ireland on the field.

Asked whether playing against the country of her upbringing give her extra motivation, Dargan says: “Yeah. To prove myself. This year, I haven’t really seen much of the England girls after the game, they were really bitterly disappointed after they lost over in

Ireland … they didn’t want to speak to me really so that’s it, we went our separate ways. ”Is there bad blood there? Laughing, she says: “I think that night there was.” Did they think you shouldn’t have been playing for Ireland? “No, I think it’s just because they lost, and England never expect to lose. That’s their attitude, one above everybody else.”

Do you think being in a squad that beats them 25-0 shows that they should have approached you to play for them a couple of years ago? “No. I’m glad… I wouldn’t like to play for anyone else. The team is just fantastic… no. Who knows but I don’t think you’d have those same friendships and relationships… Sophie Spence, another of the Exiles, she’s exactly the same. I think England approached her and she said ‘no’, she wanted to play for Ireland. She said she couldn’t pick a better bunch of girls to play with.”

To achieve victory with that bunch was especially satisfying. The Slam clincher against Italy was played out in dreadful conditions and in a nervy fashion. No four-try tour de force like against England, instead a

6-3 stumble over the finishing tape. But hey, they wouldn’t be an Irish team without a third-act hitch on the way to their triumphant ending. Ultimately, and crucially, they got there on that inclement Milan day.

“Just to be part of the team, the celebrations… We had more support out there than the Italians. They all had flags up for us. There was an Irish band on for us afterwards, it was Paddy’s Day as well. Just to see the emotions of the older girls who’d been there 10 years and put all the effort in. They’ve had the 76-0 defeats.”

They are a long way from 76-0 defeats now. So far away that when asked whether winning next June’s World Cup was a realistic ambition for Ireland, Dargan simply says: “Yeah.”
She adds: “I think this year has given us that confidence. We’d come third but now we’ve beaten teams we hadn’t beaten before. It’s just about trusting ourselves and our abilities and moving upwards.”

Dargan approaches the next World Cup in a different situation to the last one. She says: “I watched the last World Cup with my Dad and he said: ‘I think you should go and have a go’. So I went to Millwall, and from there up to Saracens and it’s just gone from there really.

“He’s been quite emotional over the Six Nations, just seeing me get on. Just the achievement I think.
“Last year after I got named in the 44 I knew that I wanted to get back into it. I did make the sacrifices this year that I didn’t make last year: the fitness, the training, not going out. At least if I didn’t get in I could say that I put all the effort in.

“I didn’t get selected for the Wales game. Goose was really honest, he said, ‘We’re going to put the other girl in who has more experience’. I thought that was it, I wasn’t going to get in this year. I was wondering would I try again next year, because it’s so much commitment, especially with the kids and stuff. Then a week later he rang me up and said, ‘Do you want the good news, you’re in the squad for the England game ….

“…Oh my God. Just to get the cap, to wear the shirt… Everyone being so proud.”
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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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