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Barbarians helped me love rugby again

We caught up with Ciara Griffin ahead of back to back Barbarians games in the next few weeks. 

Ciara Griffin hasn’t played rugby since the last time the Barbarians played South Africa back in 2021, but such was the joy of that experience, that the former Irish captain had no hesitation in taking up the offer again. 

“I was farming when Stockers (Fiona Stockley) called me, and I was in half shock when she asked me to play - but the automatic answer was yes. 

“That surprised me because I thought I really was finished with rugby, but I found I couldn’t say no because that week in 2021 was phenomenal.  It brought back my love of rugby.”

Griffin’s Barbarians experience two years ago came just a few weeks after she had announced her surprise retirement from rugby at aged just 27. 

“I had had a really tough time at the end with Ireland and so much was happening behind the scenes, and I had honestly just lost the love of rugby. 

“It had become such a slog and there was a lot of pressure. But that week we had with the Barbarians was just amazing so when I got that call, that all came flooding back.”

Griffin was part of a Barbarians team who were part of an unexpected record breaking feat when they beat South Africa in front of almost 30,000 fans – a then world record for a women’s international game. 

The match had been scheduled to be played after a men’s fixture, but after six positive Covid cases, their match against Samoa was cancelled and the women’s game was brought forward by almost three hours.

“Twickenham was unbelievable,” Griffin laughs.

“We had gone for a walk, and we got a text to get back quickly to head to the stadium. It was manic getting there, and then when we did and got ready it was class. The crowd were amazing. 

“I remember a Mexican wave went around the stadium and I hadn’t been in a game where that had happened with such a huge crowd. We had a huddle at one point, and I took absolutely nothing in because I was watching the wave go around. It was such a fun experience. 

Griffin’s friendship with another former Irish and now Barbarians player Lindsay Peat, has been cemented since they both stopped playing for their country. 

Just weeks after that game at Twickenham, which they both played,  the murmurs of discontent in the women’s game burst into the open in Ireland, with a letter to the government, signed by 62 current and former players, expressing their loss of trust and faith in the IRFU being made public.

Both were involved behind the scenes and they continue to work to try and make the game stronger there. 

“We’d played together with Ireland for six years but that Barbarians time we had together was brilliant and brought us closer, and then after that, we’ve obviously been part of a lot of effort to make things better here. 

“She’s now one of the people I voice note the most. She loves a good voice note too but you have to be careful sometimes where you open hers! The last time I played rugby was on the field with her so I’m looking forward to getting to do that again on this tour.”

Though Griffin may not have played for two years, she insists she is ready to play. 

“I have kept fit since I retired. I am playing football and I have been running a lot. I’ve run five half marathons and two marathons in the last couple of years – something I’d never have been able to do when I was playing, and of course I am at the gym – I’ll never give that up!”

Griffin, a primary school teacher, has also been busy in her free time, completing her farming Green Cert and regularly penning columns for the BBC and the Irish Examiner, and commentating on women’s games, something she loves and hopes to do more of. 

The Barbarian’s experience isn’t going to lead her back to playing rugby again though and she says she’s no regrets about retiring.

“The ending with Ireland was tough and when we didn’t qualify for the World Cup you feel you’ve let a whole nation down. I knew I wasn’t going to go to the next World Cup and so for me I felt why would I take a jersey, when a younger player who would be there for that needed that experience.

“In that Barbarians week in 2021 I had no weight on my shoulders, there was no political side to it, no over-responsibility, I just turned up and played with people who were all there for the same reason. I absolutely loved that and that’s what I am looking forward to again. 

“People ask me all the time how retirement is - and I say I am the happiest I have ever been. I am just at a stage where I am doing things I’ve wanted to do and had been putting off. 

“I am so fortunate to have had six years in an Irish jersey, and I never thought I’d be captain so that was such an honour. I think if I had kept playing, I might have started to resent that green jersey and that’s dangerous, it’s poisonous, so it was right for me.”

She has empathy too for Nichola Fryday, who replaced her as Irish captain but who too has since retired from the Irish game at just 28. 

“She did everything she could,” Griffin says.

“Captaining Ireland is a hard slog, and she gave all she could and didn’t have an easy time. I thought she represented herself and the jersey so well and she should be proud of herself.  It didn’t finish how she wanted but I really hope she goes on now to enjoy her next chapter.”

As for the changes in the Irish game since ‘that letter’ Griffin is cautiously hopeful.

“The changes that we needed are going to take time to take root. It’s frustrating as a lot of what’s happening now in terms of development should have happened years ago, but they are putting structure in and trying to develop the game. 

“I would say if anything else did need change, then they need to listen harder to the clubs and those playing every week more than they seem to be. Sometimes when designing structures that affect those grassroots players, it’s clear they aren’t included enough so that would make a big difference.”

She reflects that being away from the game has given her perspective and has meant she has been able to play a stronger role in helping to drive change, establishing a good relationship with the IRFU CEO Kevin Potts for example. 

“Around five of my years with Ireland were really enjoyable. It should be all of them, but there were problems. We wrote a letter for a reason – we felt we needed to make change. Sometimes to make change on the field you have to be off it. 

“After I retired there was a full-on year of fighting for change off the pitch. I had retired but I didn’t feel I had really yet. 

“Every day I was doing something, making calls, getting on Zoom, meeting people, suggesting things. 

“We did get some change and reaction which was positive at the time. They listened then and I hope they keep listening. I hope we continue to see a meaningful investment and meaningful approach in Ireland because the potential is so huge.”

For now Griffin is looking forward to a tour with the Barbarians with a smile on her face. After all she’s been through, few could be anything but thrilled for her. 

The Barbarians play South Africa on Saturday 23 September at Athlone Stadium in Cape Town,  before travelling to play Munster on 30 September at Thomond Park in Limerick