29 Jan 2022

BIG INTERVIEW: Talented Tullamore woman reaches international rugby dream

Touhey's unique and “crazy” rugby journey leads to big breakthrough

Talented Tullamore woman reaches international rugby dream

Shannon Touhey, left, tackling Leinster's Lauren Farrell McCabe while playing for Connacht in the interpros.

SHE has barely had time to breathe in the past few years as she has juggled quite a few balls in the air but Shannon Touhey has still made the space to pinch herself and make sure she is not dreaming.

The popular 24 year old was absolutely over the moon when she became the latest Tullamore woman to achieve full senior international rugby recognition for Ireland, coming on as a replacement in the 15-12 win over Japan in November.

She was following in the proud footsteps of a number of Tullamore and Offaly women who have reached the highest level in the emerging womens' game: while she is hoping that it will be no flash in the pan and she will play several more times for her country, she will always cherish this cap.

Shannon Touhey has come on the road less travelled to the top level. She is a very late developer, only taking up rugby at U-18 level and she has made phenomenal progress since then. She is a glowing example of what can be achieved through hard work, perseverance, hunger and most importantly, a willingness to take hard knocks, to keep pushing forward. She has taken a few of those but she has always taken the lessons on board, bouncing back and it has all opened up an ocean of possibilities for her.

Yet she remains grounded in it all. She is a familiar sight to Tullamore people as an employee at Chocolate Brown on William Street – she is a supervisor for their Tullamore and Portlaoise branches – and while she is ambitious about what she can achieve in rugby, there are other things she wants to do in life. Motherhood is a particular goal for her and she hopes to have children before 30 – she is aware that this will very much change her focus in life and rugby will take a back seat if it happens.

For now, however, she is very driven in rugby and she is also cherishing her involvement with the Tullamore camogie team – she was the goalkeeper as Tullamore won the Offaly intermediate camogie title this year.

Camogie and ladies football were her first sporting loves, sowing the seeds that have now bloomed on the rugby fields. Shannon Touhey grew up in St Columba's Place on the Clonminch side of town and when she moved out of her parternal home, it was only around the corner. Her father Patrick is from O'Molloy Street in Tullamore, her mother Teresa is a Buckley from Ballykilmurray in the wider Ballinamere area.

She inherited her sporting passion from both parents. Patrick was a talented junior soccer player for years, playing with Clonminch Rovers in the Leinster Football League Counties Divisions while Teresa comes from a strong GAA background and played camogie and ladies football.

As a child, Touhey enjoyed the street games up in St Columba's Place but didn't join any club. Her mother brought her to everything as she searched for some hobby. Hip hop, drama and many more were tried and discarded but her interest was heightened when she was introduced to camogie at St Philomena's National School around 9-10 years of age – playing indoor camogie under the guidance of teacher, Fionnuala Corrigan. A coach Ray Connolly suggested she join Tullamore Camogie Club, which she did and she also took up ladies football, playing both games throughout her teens.

She played a lot of camogie, and was a county player at u-12, 14, 16 and minor level. She won two minor “B” All-Ireland medals with Offaly and then took a year out after taking up rugby. She went back then and was called into the Offaly junior panel but didn't pursue a county career as it was “too serious” and rugby was becoming more important for her.

She started in goals for the Offaly junior team as they went to an All-Ireland semi-final and really enjoyed that year. She was nominated for a Soaring Stars award in 2018 and even though she didn't win it, she was very proud of that recognition. Richie Power called her into the Offaly senior squad after he was appointed but by now she was going well with Connacht and had got her initial call up into Ireland. “I couldn't commit to Offaly seniors. Having said that, I loved my time in there but those girls are also training at a high level as well. It is a high standard and to be with Connacht, Ireland and Offaly, I just couldn't do it.”

She didn't get the call back into the Offaly senior squad but didn't mind as she “didn't have to let anyone down”. She commented: “To be fair, people knew camogie was my priority”. She is grateful to every camogie coach she encountered for developing her into the sports person she is.

She also loved football, though camogie was her preference, and she was delighted when Tullamore won the Offaly senior ladies football title this year. That success has kindled a spark in her and she would love to play football again but at the moment, it can't be balanced with her rugby life.

She went to college young, starting a business sports management course in Athlone IT at 17 years of age, graduating after four years. She had begun working in Chocolate Brown at 16 years of age, inititially part time before it became a full time job and by 17 years of age, she was looking for something different in sport. Because of her father, Patrick, she tried soccer but it wasn't for her. In college, she met Niall Kane who was over the U-18s rugby team in Tullamore and he suggested she go to one of their games.

On arrival, she was handed shorts and socks and despite her protestations that she had never played and knew nothing about it, she was thrown into the fray, handed the number 12 jersey for centre. “I hadn't a clue what I was doing. Kim Cobbe was 10 and she said stay behind me and as long as you can see my number, you are fine. That's wjhat I did and it stuck. It was like a drug and I wanted to play all time time.”

That was in 2015 and she quickly gained recognition. She successfully came through trials for the Leinster and Irish U-18s 7s squads, travelling to Manchester with Ireland but she had only three months rugby under her belt at this stage and it was a huge step up for her.

In her second year in college, she continued to play U-18s and that year of club rugby served her development well. She played in college for three years, captaining the side to an All-Ireland title and she smiled: “My rugby journey has been crazy. It feels like it has been ages but it has only been a few years.”

In her first year senior, she attended a Connacht trial thanks to the prompting of a fellow Tullamore player Jill Draper. She was familiar with a lot of the Connacht players who went to college in Athlone but didn't make it in the first trial. Three weeks later, she got a call from Draper telling her that they had a few injuries and she would get another chance. Amazingly she started that provincial series in 2013 and it has been a tremendous roller coaster journey since then.

She has played with Connacht every year since, usually in the 12 or 13 position and in the 2019 series, she went particularly well, resulting in a call from the Irish coach Adam Griggs inviting her in for the Autumn international series. That was her first big taste of international rugby as she got game time in a friendly against Scotland and went to a training camp in France. Unfortunately she didn't get capped in that Autumn series, though looking back now, she admits that she wasn't “mentally ready” for it.

She remained involved for the 6 Nations series, again without picking up a cap. “I wasn't ready. At the time I would have loved to play and I was very disappointed but now when I look back, I know I wasn't ready then. I really wasn't.”

Covid-19 disrupted life for everyone and there was very little activity in the Spring and Summer of 2020. Like everyone else, Touhey embraced her own individual gym programme, zoom sessions etc and towards the end of 2020, she was released back to her club, told that the coaches felt she needed more game time. “That was fair enough. It was a big drop for me as I was playing top level rugby but looking back on it now, I think it made me a better player. I had to rise from that.”

It was a tough year for her and she felt that nothing was going her way, even training. She much prefers training with groups than individually - “I was doing the work but looking back, I probably wasn't doing it the best that I could and when I went back in, I felt I wasn't up to standard,” she admitted. “Some girls were in the best shape of their life when they went back in and others like myself weren't in the best shape.”

She had transferred to Suttonians in Dublin, to play in the All-Ireland League but the campaign was cancelled because of Covid. “At this point, I was saying what can I do? I can't control any of this.”

Camogie gave her a respite earlier in 2021 as they began online training firstly under Padraig and Tommy Hannon in Tullamore before training collectively from June. She loved this training and much to her surprise, she also got a call up again from Connacht with their head coach Ross Mannion asking her to come on board for the inter-provincial series.

It was all going on at the one time with camogie and rugby over lapping and she ended up training each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with a camogie match on most Saturday's, a rugby one on the Sunday with Tullamore. “It was full steam ahead and I was drained. Other girls were the same. Some trained for football on a Tuesday night from 6 to 7 and then camogie from 7 to 8. It was tough. It shows what people do for the love of their sport.”

She was fortunate that there was just one clash between a camogie championship game against St Sinchill's and interprovincial rugby game. She played the rugby and she is grateful to her coaches for the way they tried to accomodate her and avoid burnout. “It breaks my heart to miss any camogie with Tullamore because they are my roots. I wouldn't be playing sport if it wasn't for GAA but we got through it.”

Connacht had a disappointing inter-pro series, losing two and drawing one game but Touhey had a great time. “To be honest everyone was just happy to be playing rugby. I had probably the best fun of my life playing that inter pro series. We train to win but the fact that we got to play rugby again, I was just so happy. I had no commitment to Irish rugby at that time and I had no worries. I could just be myself and play the way I wanted to play. The girls were the same.”

Some of the games were on televsion and she was delighted that it gave family members an opportunity to see her play and she was in the Bridge Centre one day when she got a text from Irish coach Adam Griggs, followed by a call inviting her back in for the Autumn internationals.

This time, she went in with a different nothing to lose attitude, a carefree attitude. “I said I would just do my best and if I didn't get picked I didn't get picked, I would just play my game. The first time, I was so nervous, it was so nerve wracking. If I caught or passed the ball, it was oh God, what will I do, will I do something wrong. It was all in my head. I decided to just go out and enjoy myself. That is what I did, I enjoyed every second of it. It was sad when the series was over but it was an amazing experience. I played some of my best rugby when I was in there.”

She wasn't picked for the USA game but she knew at that game that she was ready for this level. This was a big change from the previous time when she was engulfed with doubts. She played for Tullamore the following day and received the news after this that she would be on the bench for the Japan game. It was a really emotional occasion for her, a feeling that she was “finally getting there”.

She went into camp and on the Saturday, she finally fulfilled her dream singing the national anthem before the game with her parents, fiancee Dermot Tierney and friends present. She was raring to get into the fray and knew that the game was made for her type of player, an all action type who likes to break the gainline.

The support of Dermot Tierney has been crucial to her. The Ballinasloe man is the Tullamore womens' coach and is also involved in the Connacht set up. They got engaged during the inter-pros and are now living together. When things were going wrong last year, his guidance, advice and encouragement helped keep her on the right road. He also gave practical help in coaching and passing the ball as well as accepting when she is away from home in rugby camp with Ireland.

She is also grateful to her parents for their support – her work and rugby commitments has limited the time she gets to spend with them but their understanding has made life easier.

“If you didn't have your family and support, you couldn't do it. Them and Dermot are my biggest supporters. They understand why I do what I do.”

She has come under pressure to give up camogie and concentrate on rugby but has resisted so far. “I am not at the point yet that I need to give it up. The girls always back me and any coach in Tullamore GAA has always worked with me as best as they could. I wouldn't be playing sport if it wasn't for the GAA so I will keep doing what I can for as long as I can.”

Yet Touhey is very much aware that the day could come when she can no longer juggle two different sports. Her hestitation when asked the question speaks volumes about her desire to continue with both.

A gentle laugh, followed by: “Yeah I'd say so but to be honest I have avoided it so far. I don't know, it is tough. I can't stretch myself as much as I want to but then I don't know how Ireland is going to go either.”

The 6 Nations is scheduled to start in February and she hopes to be involved in that but doesn't know yet – a new head coach, Greg McWilliams has been appointed. “If I am on it, I am on it; if not, all I can to is move on from it. I am taking everything as it comes at the moment.”

She agreed that Covid-19 lockdowns have changed her as a sports person. “It has had its lows but it also had its highs and it taught me that life isn't revolved around sport. Before that my mammy used to be telling me that my whole life revolved around sport. I knew it was but I didn't want to hear it.”

She lists off the examples: a family holiday to Cork every year that her mother planned around sport but she nearly always ended up either being driven back up or collected for a match. “Mad stuff. Even now during the inter-pro series, I was on holidays in Cork and I drove up three times to Galway for training. A Tuesday, back that night, the same on Thursday and the Saturday. And back each time.”

She agreed that those are the sacrifices that have to be made if you want to play at that level. “It was tough, you sacrifice so much,” she said, revealing that her granny Kathleen Buckley died the night before she went for a training camp to France during her first stint with Ireland. “She was in Clara Home and I would have been very close to her. It was kind of expected and not expected at the same time. It happened very fast but I was supposed to go away to France the next morning. Anyone else would have said my granny has died, cancel it. Having said that none of my family or aunts or uncles said that, they all said go, this is what she would have wanted, she would have been annoyed.”

She went to France but didn't tell most of her team mates or Irish management about the bereavement and grief she was going through. “I said this will make me look weak and I don't want to look weak. I left on a plane, missed her funeral but I knew and her family knew this is what she would have wanted.”

She cried in France when she got time to herself but hid it from everyone else out there. “When you are training or eating dinner or out with people, it was on the back of my mind but I used it to push myself. I said I am missing my nanny's funeral, make it worth it.”

There were moments when it hit her like a tonne of bricks – a phone call from her mother after the funeral when she “needed to cry so bad” but couldn't as a room mate was there though she had told her. “I got through it,” she smiled.

It was suggested that any management would have understood her grief and made allowances. “Yeah but when you are in that athlete's mindset,” she said, admitting that it would have been different if she was established. “I was trying to break in. The hardest thing to do is to break into the squad.” She never told the mananagement - “That was pre-Covid and when I was in lockdown, I was thinking about the things I did. And I was probably not the first. It taught me life is too short to be worrying. If rugby was my full time job, fair enough, there would be some exception but it is not.

“Now I make sure I have time for me, for my family, for my fiancee,” she commented, revealing that she recently returned from a weekend trip to Paris. “He (Dermot) is the same, he is very driven like that. Because he coaches so many teams, for him to miss a match . . . . Like two years ago, it wouldn't have happened, he would have come back from Timbuktu for it. We missed a Tullamore match when we were away and that was our first time to do anything like that. Covid taught us that we can't do that, put everything on hold.”

On the other side of the coin, she knows that her career could be short and that she has to grasp every opportunity while it is going well. “That is it and womens' careers are a lot shorter than men. It is unfortunate for us. I want to have family and stuff. There are girls who have been with Ireland a long time and they want to have a family but haven't yet and are now aiming towards a World Cup. It puts it all in perspective. A woman's sporting career is very short. Obviously you can have kids and go back playing if you want to but it is difficult. Then it is are you putting your family first or yourself first. You are not getting paid full time for it, you are not getting paid really at all. It is quite short. Covid did teach us sport isn't everything.”

She smiles when she notes, however, that her life has been all about sport since September. “It (Covid lockdowns) has taught me an awful lot. Two years ago, I wouldn't have dreamt of missing a match for holidays but it also taught me how to enjoy sport. Pre-Covid, I wouldn't say I wasn't enjoying it but I was worrying so much. Making matches, doing this training, doing that, winning matches. Now if I am enjoying it, that is the main thing. Hopefully it will stay the same.”

She has also returned to playing her club rugby with Tullamore. After her initial call up to Ireland, she spent time as a dual status player, playing senior with Suttonians in the All-Ireland League on a Saturday after being advised to do so by Adam Griggs. She had been training with Tullamore but couldn't play matches with them as they generally clashed with Irish camp and the opportunity for onfield action was impossible to resist – she was still eligible to play Leinster League with Tullamore.

“It was just to get games. Leinster Division 1 was played on a Sunday and the AIL on a Saturday. I signed the dual and I think I only played two games with them.”

Before being dropped by Ireland, she signed fully for Suttonians as she felt she needed to be playing the higher standard. Lockdown came then and she didn't play any games after signing fully for them. “I went to the training but there was no matches. The girls up in Suttonians are lovely, a lot come from international backgrounds. It is a high standard up there.”

In 2021, she signed dual status again with Tullamore and Suttonians and she describes this as the “best decision I ever made” - this time her priority has been to Tullamore.

“I was going to sign fully back anyway because it is my home club and I was travelling to Dublin for training. It was my whole day gone but trying to plan around work and everything was so hard. And then you have Dublin traffic. You think it is an hour and a half training but really with travel, it is five hours.”

Suttonians worked with her, allowing her to train once during the week but she wasn't in the right headspace for that commitment after being dropped. “I was saying what is the point but I signed dual status because Suttonians have been so good to me and if they need a hand out, I can go up and play. It is a benefit to me as well to play a high level.”

She is enjoying every minute of playing with Tullamore as they have topped their league. “There is a panel of thirty odd. For a club team that is very good and the competition is high.”

She has played with both Tullamore and Suttonians this season, enjoying getting the “best of both worlds”. She is optimistic about Tullamore's prospects, believing that they have the potential to be an AIL team.

How is womens' rugby looked after in Ireland? “We are looked after. We get fed, watered, clothed accomodation. To be fair, they help us out as much as we can for us to perform to the best we can with our situation of having to work. They cater for us very well. I can't complain that way. They are doing the best they can at the moment.”

She spoke about the development of womens' sport in Ireland and spoke about the volume of top level rugby players coming out of Offaly as well as mentioning boxer Grainne Walsh. “There is a lot of international talent in Offaly and there is a few more that hasn't been seen yet. Womens' sport is getting a big push. We need more though. I know Brian O'Driscoll came out recently and said we need the men to push it because it is just women preaching to women. It is getting there slowly but it is baby steps. I just hope for my period of time, I can do the best I can to be the best I can and hopefully leave something better behind for my kids or whoever is coming behind me.”

She doesn't expect her sporting to career to be a really long one, joking: “If it my mam's choice, she would have me due by Christmas. Honestlty, I don't know. I want to have kids before I am 30, even earlier. I love the thoughts of having a family. Right now, I am just taking everything as it comes.”

She revealed that this time last year, she would have jumped at the chance to be a mother but now is more ready to wait - “I am not sure if I am financially ready for a family and I have to plan a wedding,” she smiled.

She hopes they will have a small intimate wedding and will start to plan that early in the new year. She repeats her mantra of taking things as they come and enjoying things as they are. “I am hoping something will say to me, Shannon it is time to stop. I am hoping I will have that voice inside me because some people don't and if they do, they don't have the will power. One of the girls said to me after I got my first cap, it is like a drug now and you are going to chase it. You get one cap and then you want another and another but in a way, if I only got one, I will be happy. It can't be taken away from me.

“If I am not called back in, I will have reached my goal and if I am called back in, I will see how it goes from there. In terms of my future, just take baby steps and as it comes. You just don't know. We are in and out of lockdown and I just don't know myself but definitely, family is an ambition for me and I hope I have that voice inside me to tell me, Shannon it is time to settle down.”

She knows it is possible to play sport after having children and she expects to do so but not at a high standard. “I won't be going crazy and looking to play for Connacht and Ireland. It couldn't be done.”

Touhey stressed that it is different for male Irish rugby players where it is their job. “For us, if we don't play rugby, it is not our bread and butter but for men, it is. They rely on that income. It is very different for men and women.”

She talked about the difference in structures for male and female rugby. “It is a big difference. I would love to have a family and not in my 30s. Hopefully in my 20s. I want to be able to chase my kids around.”

She is very conscious of the many female rugby players from Offaly who have reached a high standard. “It has been a help. Megan (Burns) and myself played U-18 level. We went through the underage system together. She is a very talented girl. You knew straight away when you saw her play that this girl would be an international player. I had only started rugby when I was playing with Megan. She brought me on a bit too, not only by talking but by the way she plays. With Kim (Cobbe) playing 10 that first season, I didn't have that long to play with Kim and she moved up senior and I stayed with the U-18s. My first proper season at U-18 was with Megan and just by playing with her, it taught me more about rugby and how to spot gaps.

“Then when I went up to senior, the first year I tried with Connacht, Nichola (Fryday) trialled with them. The two of us went on trials together. Up to when I won my first cap there, Nichola always brought me along. She knew the setbacks and she knew what I was going through. She had either been through it herself or she saw others go through it. She had that experience to bring me along. Even when I was walking out on the pitch for my first cap, Nichola was beside me, saying this is where you need to be. You are going to do so well. She also told me that she wasn't playing rugby too long either. She told me it could be done.

“Then there is Ailsa Hughes. We played camogie together. I wasn't playing rugby at the time and we got to a final. Ailsa had to miss the final for a Leinster game. At the time, I didn't really understand it. It was like, it is rugby, this is camogie but now looking back, I know why she did it. She is an Irish international. All other girls have different stories and different ways of how they got into the system. Definitely it helped having a few around who did it. They showed that it can be done, no matter what background you have. Whether it is rugby, camogie or whatever.”

While she played rugby sevens at the start, Touhey has no doubt that her rugby future is in the full sized game. “I enjoy sevens but for fun. I enjoy the Tullamore Midnight Sevens but in the future, I would never see myself in the sevens setup. Fifteens is more my type of game. I am a hard runner, not a fast runner. I am built for comfort, not for speed. Hopefully my future is in fifteens. At the moment my main focus is on Tullamore winning the league and after that we will see where the road takes me.”

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