Little did Niamh Ní Dhroma know that lining out for a combined Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána XV against the French Armed Forces would help catapult her towards the highest level of rugby in the country.
That match held on International Women’s Day, in the leafy surrounds of Monkstown RFC in March 2019, would set Ní Dhroma on a path which would lead her to a new province and ultimately, international rugby.
The 31-year-old, who is a Captain in the Irish Defence Forces, originally played with Athlone outfit Buccaneers and Connacht and there was no way she was going to pass up an opportunity to make history in what was the very first women’s rugby match involving the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána.
“Yeah, we have a combined forces team with ourselves and the Garda Síochána,” Ní Dhroma tells Pundit Arena.
“The French armed forces flew over to Ireland and we played against them in a kind of a friendly game but in the hope reigniting military rugby. That was a brilliant game. The Assistant Commissioner from the guards came, the Chief of Staff came down to it. It was the first time other than once in Dubai that we ever togged out with the national anthem and that was really cool.”
A special and historic event in itself, but due to the presence of Leinster women’s head coach Ben Armstrong, there is now an added and perhaps more significant reason why memories of that day will always be clear in her mind.
“He was watching an army versus a French armed forces game, he called me up to the Leinster squad [as a result] which was great because I was living in Dublin and trying to travel up and down to Connacht was a disaster. From there I got the call into the Ireland squad.
“It wasn’t something that was on the cards, it wasn’t something that I was expecting. Obviously, I was 30 when I got the call to go in! So it was surprising but it was really brilliant. They have an amazing coaching staff.”
It’s rather unorthodox that Ní Dhroma won her first cap for Ireland at the age of 31 but she is a woman who takes the road less travelled and does so on her own terms.
This began at an early age when as a teenager in secondary school she had her sights firmly set on a career in the Irish Defence Forces.
Although a teacher at the time bizarrely attempted to pour cold water on her dream, Ní Dhroma persevered.
“Yeah, it’s strange nobody in my school had ever gone that I knew of back then. And I remember saying it to a teacher in fourth year, I said ‘I want to join the army’ and she was like, ‘No, you’re not going to be any good at that, you’re not going to the army.’
“So it was just something that I’ve always wanted to do. I was good in school but I wasn’t great at attending. I spent most of my time scouting out army barracks and trying to suss out the best place to get in and all of this. It was always something I wanted to do but it’s really strange because I don’t have any family in the army or anything.
“It’s just something that I thought was brilliant. I got in and everyone asks me, ‘Why do you want to join the army?’ And I’m like, ‘[laughs] Guns and bombs, obviously, they’re so cool!’ There’s a lot more to it but that is what I thought when I was in fourth year.”
Once Ní Dhroma finished school and turned 18, she began a gruelling 15-month period as a Cadet in the army.
Once that was completed she was assigned to a barracks in Athlone. At the time Ní Dhroma wouldn’t have been able to pick the midlands town out on a map but it was her new life in Co. Westmeath which led to her love of the oval ball.
“I joined the army when I was 18 so I had 15 months of training. After I finished there I got sent to Athlone. I didn’t even know where it was in the country when they told me [laughs]!
“I was like ‘Oh my god, where is this place?!’ So I moved to Athlone and I was kind of like, not lost, but you don’t know anyone in the town, you finish work at half one in the afternoon and you’re like, ‘What am I going to do with myself now?’ So, I found Buccaneers Rugby Club. I rang them and I just said, ‘Can I come and play, please?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, come on down, we’d love to have you.'”
Before Ní Dhroma took up rugby for the first time, she was an accomplished camogie player – winning an intermediate All-Ireland with Dublin – but the sport would firmly take a backseat after one particular year where she was involved in a remarkable five different rugby teams.
“So I started playing there [Buccaneers] and the coach put me forward for Connacht trials in the same year. And I got it. I was lucky enough to get it. I think after eight months playing with Buccaneers, they sent me down for trials with the Irish Sevens where they were kind of looking for more athletes rather than people who had an abundant of rugby skill which was lucky for me because I was still so new!
“So yeah, I made the panel then. In my first year, I was playing Sevens, Connacht, Buccaneers and dual-status with Galwegians and then I also played in the Intervarsities with NUIG all in the one year. I completely just…camogie was in the rear-view mirror and I wasn’t going near it again because rugby was everything then.”
Once Ní Dhroma’s time with the Ireland Sevens side came to an end, a combination of unfortunate injuries and her deployment to the conflict-ridden region of southern Lebanon proved to be a speed bump in the progression of her rugby career.
“The Defence Forces will give you every opportunity to travel but because we didn’t have many missions since Chad ended, there was a bit of backlog to get officers over so I was actually seven years in the army before I got my first trip. I was actually playing rugby so it suited me at the time. I was on the Sevens squad. When I finished up with the Sevens squad, I tore my ACL playing rugby for Connacht and I had six months to get that right and then I was selected to go overseas.
“So I went to Lebanon on my first tour. I came back and I was plagued again with a few more injuries. I did my calf, I did my AC joint and I was just right enough to pass my fitness test to travel again the following year. And then I came back at the end of November 2018, played a bit of army rugby, a bit of Sevens and that’s when Leinster caught on, asked me to come play and everything kind of kicked off.”
Life in the Defence Forces has undoubtedly given Ní Dhroma a level of determination and resilience which she applies to her rugby career. In fact, the incredibly intense level of training and strict lifestyle which is required when touring inadvertently helped her with her fitness and her return to high-level rugby when she arrived back in Ireland.
“The camp [in Lebanon] is about a kilometre and a half all the way around. You can’t leave the camp unless you’re on a scheduled patrol. So you’ll do your work, you start at about six and you finish at about three, so the rest of the day, you’re on your own time unless you have specific tasks or patrols to do.
“It was actually brilliant because I was fitter coming back from both of those trips than I was ever playing rugby. Because you haven’t any matches where you have to restrict your training load. You’re just training, training, training for six months and that was a blessing for me because it helped me get over injuries and it helped me be fit enough to come back at a high level of rugby when I got back into the country the Christmas before last.”
Ní Dhroma’s new-found level of fitness helped her shine on that day at Monkstown RFC. It also paved the way for her move to Leinster, a province who continue to break new ground in women’s rugby in Ireland.
Playing at a high standard at provincial level, in addition to her time with her new club, Old Belvedere, has brought Ní Dhroma’s game to new heights.
When the Dubliner arrived at preseason training with Leinster last summer, naturally, there were some nerves and anxiety as she met her new teammates for the first time but this was ramped up somewhat when Ní Dhroma suggested that they should take part in an army assault course as a team-building exercise.
“Tommy, the guy who is the instructor on the course, was also working in the Defence Forces’ physical education school in the Curragh, so I just rang him up and said, ‘Any chance to get down there for a bit of team bonding?’
“And the girls went down. I was a bit worried halfway through, I was like, ‘Some of them are going to hate me forever for putting them through this!’ I was looking at their faces and they were just struggling a lot and I was like, ‘Oh my god, no one will ever speak to me again!’
“But they all really, really enjoyed it and they got a lot out of it. The coaches got a lot out of it as well. They were able to see areas for improvement with us as players and players were able to bond and be able to rely on each other afterwards. It was really, really enjoyable.”
For Ní Dhroma, it was an opportunity for her new teammates to get an insight in her life off the rugby pitch.
“It was funny. Because I’d be quiet enough outside of rugby unless I know people quite well. And I was new into the Leinster squad. I remember when we got there, I was like, ‘Right, girls. Come on. You need to fall in here, you need to get onto this platform, hands behind your back, helmets on.’
“And they were going, ‘Will you relax! Look at this one, she’s the boss here now!’ And then Tommy walked out and just destroyed them! He was like, ‘FALL IN! I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU’RE DOING, GET DOWN!’ And they were like, ‘Oh, my god!’ They quickly understood the difference between my work and social life [laughs]! They were like, ‘Look at this one’ and all of a sudden they were crawling, I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus!’
That team-bonding seemed to have the desired effect as Leinster cruised to winning the interprovincial championship.
Unfortunately for Ní Dhroma, she was injured for the latter part of that campaign but she returned to fitness in time to be called into Adam Griggs’ Ireland squad where she made her international debut against Wales in November.
She’s subsequently been named in the Ireland Six Nations squad and she’s determined to represent her country again, if not during the upcoming tournament, then perhaps later in the year as Ireland look to secure their qualification for the World Cup.
“It would be mad just to get a bit more time in a green shirt. One of our coaches, Steve, told me once that he managed to tog out in a green jersey at seven once and he didn’t get to play again. So I’m hoping that’s not the case for me. Even if I don’t get a tog out in the Six Nations, that at least I’ll be improving and improving and get to tog out again soon.”