Interview: Maeve Óg O'Leary on batting away negative perceptions of women's sport

Interview: Maeve Óg O'Leary on batting away negative perceptions of women's sport

This week, the Irish Post sat down with Maeve Óg O'Leary, the Irish women's rugby player, to gain a deeper insight into women's rugby in Ireland.

This year, the Irish women's rugby team managed to finish third in their Six Nations group under new coach Scott Bemand. This is a welcome change from last year's wooden spoon and poor string of results.

Ireland's last and only Grand Slam in the Six Nations era came in 2013. Since then, there has been an up-and-down cycle of results for the women's team. England and France have dominated the competition, while Wales, Italy, and Ireland have been left to fight it out as the "best of the rest."

However, after finishing sixth in 2023, the Irish team managed to finish a respectable third this year. This feat ensures the Irish team safe passage to next year's Rugby World Cup in England, which is a far more positive scenario than the one the women's team has found themselves in over the years.

Maeve Óg O'Leary of Ireland during the Autumn Test Series match between Ireland and USA at RDS Arena in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

There is cautious optimism about what is to come next for the women's team, and fans will be watching with eagle eyes.

One member of the Irish team who has a good insight into the new-look Irish setup under Scott Bemand is Ballina native Maeve Óg O'Leary.

O'Leary was unable to feature in this year's Six Nations but was kind enough to sit down with the Irish Post and talk all about the Ireland team, people's views on women's sports, perceptions of women being overachievers in Irish sports, and many other things.

After finishing sixth last year and third this year, the rugby star explained that the big difference this year was knowing what direction to go in.

"It's obviously evident how much the squad has grown from last year to this year. We have had the opportunity through WXV3, which has been fantastic," said O'Leary to the Irish Post.

"Look, I think last year we weren't in a great place as a squad; going out onto the pitch, we probably needed a bit more direction on what was wanted.

"We know we have a fantastic group of people in the room. We have Scott (Bemand), who has so much experience. We have Declan Danaher in defence, a main set-piece coach, and others chipping in.

"To have that quality coaching has been really special and important. The players have a really good understanding now of what we are trying to do on the pitch. The biggest thing is 'how, why, what, and when' we are trying to do on the field."

O'Leary now believes that Ireland has the tools needed to get to the next level.

"We have players on the pitch, but it's about anchoring the best of players' values on the pitch, and how can we put it forward?

"It's been class seeing the girls from the outset; they deserve it. You can see how much it means to them; there's a lot of emotion involved.

"It's not down to luck. It's down to belief, hard work, good experiences, good training, and coaching that have led us here."

Ireland players, from left, Nichola Fryday and Ciara Gryphonand Maeve Óg O'Leary, celebrate after the Autumn Test Series match between Ireland and the USA at RDS Arena in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images) )

Women's success stories in Ireland are becoming more and more present in everyday life. The Women's Football World Cup, Katie Taylor's boxing success, and many other triumphs have happened and will continue to happen as the years pass.

However, the Irish women's rugby team is still fighting tooth and nail for the right to be recognised.

For example, in April 2023, at a president's dinner in Dublin, a prominent figure in Irish rugby said, "Who gives a f--- about women's rugby?" during a speech made by IRFU president John Robinson.

This comes along with other issues like problems with team management, poor communication, player selection, denial of protein supplements, and lack of consultation on uniform changes due to period concerns.

When asked about the "Who gives a f--- about women's rugby" comment, O'Leary emphasised that it didn't add motivation for the players in this year's Six Nations and that being a role model for younger girls in the country was more important to her and the squad.

"No. You are always going to have negative stuff in the media, and you see it across the world, especially in women's sports. There are always going to be people with an opinion on it," added O'Leary.

"How we look at it as a squad, honestly, we don't ever focus on it at all. We have a complete understanding of what is needed when we go out onto the pitch, and a comment like that is messed up, and it's a shame that person has that opinion, but it's not something that comes into our focus.

"We know that there's going to be adversity being a woman in sports, and there are obstacles to overcome, but I think the most important thing is that we focus on the opinions of people who do matter, and that people who value us, like the younger girls in the country, need us to be role models.

"Honestly, in that person's opinion, I don't think many of us have batted an eyelid at it. I know it's not nice, but our focus is on the people who support us, give us values, and give us the right recognition."

A lot is made about positive role models in women's sports, and it's not hard to see why many of the older female sports stars in Ireland inspire so many of the younger generation.

Public figures like Katie Taylor, Kellie Harrington, Katie McCabe, and Rachael Blackmore are all creating history and inspiration for the youth.

When asked who inspires the rugby team, O'Leary responded with the obvious answer: the women's football team.

"100%, oh my god, yes," said O'Leary without hesitating. "We look up to other Irish teams and individual people. We all do.

"During the camp, some of the girls watched the World Cup and held it as a movie night to sit down and support the girls.

"We also receive support from the soccer squad. I know when the girls qualified for the World Cup, Katie McCabe tweeted about it.

"You'd be absolutely mad not to be motivated by it, by what they do. They had over 30,000 people in the Aviva for the England game. It's incredible. They are paving the way in terms of women's sport in Ireland. Being able to see the trickle effect it has on the League of Ireland for the young girls.

"Yes, we certainly look up to it, and we can't wait to make our own history. It's class."

Success stories in women's sports are a hot topic at the moment, and it will be like that for a long time until it becomes second nature.

There is no doubt that with added investment and more exposure, there will be more Maeve Óg O'Leary's, Taylors, Katie McCabes, and Rachael Blackmores in the future for young girls to look up too.

At this moment, it's a positive outlier for many, but the question was put to O'Leary if she ever wanted women's triumphs in sports to become part and parcel and not a bigger triump than it is or was.

She responded by saying, "When you look at the women's soccer team, nothing comes as a surprise anymore. They have really made their mark. They have done it through performance after performance. Qualifying for a World Cup was iconic and was rightly celebrated.

"I do think it's wonderful that these big events are so highly championed, which is unbelievable because it creates conversation. I hope every squad, men's and women's, is championed, and that is always the case."

When asked who her sporting icon was, the rugby star said her brother Shane O'Leary, a fellow rugby player, was her inspiration.

"He's been someone to whom I have looked up my whole career and compared my experiences in a high-performance environment. He's got injuries and has overcome them, and to be able to see that and take inspiration is the answer.

"I am blessed to be able to bounce things off him, and a lot of players don't get to do that. I am so lucky to be able to do that. Yes, he's definitely the biggest role model, even though we play in different positions."

Ending the interview, O'Leary was asked what the best bit of advice her brother gave her during her career was and responded by saying, "I think staying true to yourself, regardless of what comes at you,. Always have a growth mindset. You are never going to be complete. You never stop growing and developing. Know what it is that you want that allows you to enjoy the game.

"Stay positive about yourself and keep fighting. If you put in the hard work, it will lead to success."

The interview was conducted for Canterbury, where Maeve Óg O'Leary is an ambassador for the rugby brand.

“I feel very lucky to work with Canterbury. They are a great brand in world rugby, especially women’s rugby. They do lots of grassroots work with young girls to help them get involved and stay involved with rugby.

"That’s really evident across their brand, so I’m honoured to work with Canterbury and to try to be even just a small part of that. It’s a great feeling, and you feel like you’re a part of something. It’s not just wearing the clothes and the boots; it’s being part of a movement, so that’s really great for me."