‘Maybe I’m naive, but I’m going out to play France and I want to put on a big performance’

ONE MOMENT THAT sticks out to Béibhinn Parsons from the last six months came in early March, when she and her Ireland team-mates learned along with the rest of us that the 2021 Rugby World Cup and its preceding qualifiers had been pushed back into next year.

Five minutes after receiving that setback, Adam Griggs’ side were out on the training pitch where they put in three hours’ work, ostensibly towards only the vague idea of a date on the calendar; it would be another fortnight before Ireland even knew for certain that there would be a Six Nations this year, and when.

Parsons is awestruck by the resilience displayed by her team-mates over the last half a year, describing them as “role models”. But though she is just 19, she is becoming a leading light in her own right, striking as much awe into Irish rugby fans as she does fear into defenders.

Her phone has been hopping with well wishes from her hometown of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway and further afield since Ireland’s 45-0 win against Wales in which she scored two first-half tries, the first a magnificent exhibition of power and pace down the left edge which supporters are now beginning to expect of her as soon as she’s fed possession in a square yard of space.

And that annihilation of their hosts in Cardiff came as no great shock to Parsons or her peers, either, nor did it exceed the lofty expectations Ireland had set for themselves in advance of the fixture.

“No. Definitely not. We had goals coming into the game for ourselves,” Parsons says, speaking on a Zoom call as part of the launch of Avonmore Protein Milk’s ‘Bring Your All’ campaign.

“You know, if we went out and we didn’t beat Wales, we’d be devastated. We’ve had 20 camps together, we’ve been able to bond and gel as a team, so we were like a kettle coming to boil. We were just rearing to go after the six months. It wasn’t a case of being rusty, it was more a case of being really prepared.”

Avonmore Protein Milk today launched their new campaign for 2021, ‘Bring Your All’, with Irish & Connacht Rugby player Béibhinn Parsons.

Twenty training camps over six months, with no competitive fixtures, had its moments. “Like life, like everything, there are ebbs and flows,” Parsons says. “You have your good days and you have your bad days.” But particularly in the first half, Ireland oozed a cohesion with which their Welsh counterparts simply couldn’t live, Griggs’ women putting the result to bed within minutes and exuding a kind of crispness that the young wing saw coming where those of us outside of the camp might not have.

“It’s the most competitive squad I’ve ever been on.

“And kudos to Griggsy and to Ciara Griffin, our captain, for keeping us fresh and keeping us motivated. It’s not an easy task to keep 35 people — 40 if you include management — really enthusiastic really enthusiastic and pushing forward.

“But we haven’t qualified for a World Cup yet,” adds the Ballinasloe RFC product, suggesting that protracted mission alone was enough to sustain motivation even during seemingly ceaseless sequences of camps. “That’s my goal: come World Cup qualifier, be a shoo-in to win that and to qualify.”

Béibhinn Parsons in Ireland training (file pic). Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

In what is a standalone Women’s Six Nations removed from the shadow of the men’s tournament, there will be an increased focus on Ireland when they host a formidable-looking France at Donnybrook on Saturday (2:15pm, RTÉ Two); whereas the victory in Wales overlapped with Leinster’s Champions Cup semi-final victory over Exeter, this weekend’s pivotal game won’t clash with men’s action of any variety.

More eyeballs. More pressure. No problem.

“We welcome it,” Parsons says firmly. “I welcome it with open arms. I love it. Bring it on.

“If there are more people watching and if we’re sort of creating a fan base, keeping young girls in sport and giving them role models to look up to, that’s a great thing in my eyes. There might be an added pressure and, definitely, there’s more accountability when there are more people watching but I welcome it with open arms, definitely.”

And then there are surely pressures on Parsons specifically. As is accentuated by the fact that she’s speaking at a commercial gig just nine caps into her international career, she has the potential to become Irish rugby’s first true crossover female star, a name revered in households of all sporting persuasions and a poster that adorns kids’ bedroom walls. Her off-field capabilities should be harnessed for the greater good of Irish women’s rugby provided she’s on board with becoming one of the sport’s most prevalent personalities here.

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Connacht and Ballinasloe RFC’s Béibhinn Parsons.

But those qualities are valuable only in tandem with Parsons’ efforts on the field, where there would appear to be no ceiling to her talent: she has already become one of Griggs’ best players in her teenage years. She is unquestionably Ireland’s most potent attacking weapon, furnished with genuine game-breaking explosivity and top-end speed cultivated partly on athletics tracks when she was younger. All going well, she’s a player upon whom her team-mates are going to rely heavily in the coming years to change games, to win games.

Parsons, though, has never thought of her international career through this lens, smiling gingerly at the very notion.

“It’s funny you say that because come selection time, I’m a bag of nerves! I don’t know if I’m going to be on the team, on the bench or in the squad — or where I’ll be, you know what I mean?

“I’m still learning a lot and I’m just trying to prove myself to my team-mates. I think they are trusting me more and they might be passing me more ball; I’m getting my hands on the ball more. But there are still a lot of facets of my game to improve so I don’t know if I’m up to scratch yet.”

Béibhinn Parsons celebrates a try against Wales. Source: Robbie Stephenson/INPHO

Ireland will face a far greater test of their collective credentials this Saturday than they did against Wales, the semi-professional Bleues landing into Dublin — a mandatory hotel quarantine exemption expected, but still pending at the time of writing — seeking a spot in a title-deciding final against fully professional England, just like their hosts.

There has been a prevailing fear in recent years that England and France, with their far better-resourced infrastructures, could wind up pulling clear of the other four countries — all of whose teams are unpaid — to the extent that the Women’s Six Nations becomes ostensibly a two-tier championship.

That being said, France, champions in 2018, finished behind Italy a year later and, in a rescheduled 2020 Six Nations game last November, were held to a 13-13 draw by Scotland in Glasgow.

Indeed, the suggestion of a ‘gap’ existing between the two countries at all is met with a defiant response from Parsons, who takes an incredulous tone in setting out Ireland’s stall for the weekend: respect everyone, fear no one.

“Maybe I’m naive, maybe this is my youth showing, but I’m going out to play France and I want to put on a big performance. We’re playing at home, we want to make Donnybrook our fortress and we want to win there. There’s a lot of belief within our squad.

“We’ve been growing and we’ve been rebuilding.

Parsons acknowledges that France are “a whole different beast altogether” to the confidence-drained Welsh, and that Annick Hayraud’s side are “really going to test us on set piece, they’re going to test our back three where they’re world-class, they’ll probably bring in more of a kicking game.

“So, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” she adds. “We’re definitely happy with the win in Wales but we’ve a few things to rectify come France.

“I’ve always loved being an underdog — you’ve nothing to lose. But we think if we can get ourselves right, focus on us, have clarity on our roles and execute our own system, we can definitely bring it to France.

“It’ll be a tough match — we know that, we’re ready for that and we want that. We can’t wait.”

‘Bring your all’ is a campaign that champions the ‘positive, committed and never-give-up’ spirit within all of us who give 100% to our sport or exercise, no matter what the hurdle. The campaign will see the release of several short videos showing a special insight into the ambassadors’ motivations, training and down-time routines throughout the coming months.