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Houston ready for summer challenges

Since making her debut at the 2006 World Cup, Shannon Houston has become one of Ireland’s leading players, lining out regularly in the Irish midfield. The Canadian native tells us more.

Tell us how you got into rugby?

I started playing back in high school, I went to a small school and when I was in grade 11 there wasnt enough girls to have both a rugby team and a soccer team. I had played soccer for years, so when we got together to vote I obviously chose soccer. But rugby won out, so I had no choice, I had to play! And loved it, and have never looked back!

Why and when did you move to Ireland?

I moved to Ireland in 2004 to go to medical school. I had finished my undergrad at UVic and had taken a year out to travel to Australia, then came back and applied to the Irish universities. I studied at UCD for 5 years, graduating last June, and am now in the middle of my intern year at Vincents hospital in Dublin. I got my Irish citizenship through my Grampa which is how I qualify to play for Ireland, and also why they let me stay to work!

When was your first appearance in an Ireland jersey?

My first cap was actually at the World Cup against France (2006). It was our 1st match in the tournament and we were losing, I forget the score, but I can just remember how nervous I was! The World Cup was in Edmonton which is about a 2 hr flight from my hometown (Victoria) or a 14 hour drive from Vancouver, but my parents were able to come up for most of the tournament so it was great to have them there for my 1st cap!

How did you feel when you first lined out in Ireland colours?

Pretty nervous but also pretty excited. I didnt think I was going to get on the pitch at all that day so probably not as nervous as I might have been. It was a big occasion for everybody, being our first match at the World Cup etc, and it was just a huge honour to represent the country and line up with all my teammates, who are now some of my closest friends.

What do you do for a living and how does that impact on your rugby playing career?

Im working as a doctor, currently in my intern year, so am pretty busy! Before Christmas I was on surgical rotations so was averaging 80 hrs per week with the occasional 100hr week. Sometimes I would turn up to Leinster training after a 37 hour shift with maybe 3 hrs of sleep, other times I would meet our trainer at the gym after work at 9:30 or so to get the sessions done I didnt really get a chance to sleep very much and am lucky I didnt burn out! Since Christmas Ive been on a medical rotation so its far fewer hours, averaging 60hr per week or so, which means I even get a bit of time to relax these days. Its hard to juggle the two obviously, but the training has to be done and luckily the coaches and fitness trainer have been really flexible with my schedule and Ive been able to do most of it. I dont really have much free time apart from work, training and playing, but I love it, and if it means I get to represent Ireland then its worth it!

How much have Ireland improved from your first games with the team?

Weve improved a lot. We still have 10 people on the squad who were there at the last World Cup so a good core thats played together for a few years now, and we know how each other play so well that lots of things have become second nature that before wed really have to work on. Theres a good bunch of new players as well that bring different strengths and its created a pretty good mix going forward. Were fitter now probably than weve ever been and our skills have improved also so it means we can play the way we want to.

What are the current sides strengths?

Most of us have played together for so long now, not just with Ireland but also through the provinces and clubs that we know each other so well. We have great leadership on the team, not only our captain, Fi, but other senior players on the team that people look up to. We have some really good athletes and its just great to be able to play the way we want. Weve started to develop depth in the squad now too so youre always having to fight for your spot which keeps the standards high and people working hard.

How well do you think Ireland can do at the World Cup?

We have England first which is actually going to be brilliant. We have never beaten them before, but the last three matches weve been able to get quite close but never able to finish it out. Itll also be the opening match of the tournament and will be televised on Sky Sports so itll be a massive occasion. We also have USA and Khazakstan in our pool. We lost to USA in the last World Cup but are hoping to change that around this time. Theyre a pretty big and physical team, have a few fliers, but I think well be up to the challenge this time around. I dont know too much about Khazakstan, but Im sure theyll have some good athletes so well have to work hard no matter who the competition is. We placed 8th at the last tournament, and I think weve a great opportunity to finish higher than that this time.

What needs to happen in Ireland for it to catch up with the development of womens rugby in higher ranked nations such as England or France?

I think it has to be brought into schools earlier not just tag rugby so that girls are playing and developing skills from a younger age. There seems to be an age gap where theres teams for younger girls, then nowhere to play again until youre 18, so theres about 4-5 years where girls will turn to other sports and not return when they qualify for the senior teams. Most players on the Irish team now started playing in College which means theyre years behind in skill development from where they could have been, and have to catch up faster.

Theres also no structure or system in place to identify up and coming players for development purposes like there is in the mens game, and no system outside of the clubs to develop player skill sets or fitness. A few clubs would be equipped with good coaches etc to provide this to their own players, but most clubs dont have the expertise needed to do so.

Other Unions, like England and France, also have a lot more financial support, and although we have seen a massive difference since we fully integrated with the IRFU theres always opportunities for improvement.

You recently took part in the All Ireland Weight lifting Championships. Tell us about that?

We started doing Olympic lifting as part of our weights training just over a year ago snatches and clean and jerk to improve our power and speed. Our trainer, Sami Dowling, is a competitive Olympic lifter himself so as we got better, he suggested we compete for fun. Theres not too many female lifters in the country so we had a good chance of doing well despite being beginners. Five of us competed in the Ulster Open up in Belfast in August, then three of us carried on to compete in the Cork Open in October. I think we all achieved personal bests at each competition which is great motivation to keep training hard. Its a totally different sport from rugby theres no team out there on the platform to back you up, so you succeed or fail all on your own. It requires a different type of concentration and mental strength compared to rugby, more calculated and controlled, and is quite nerve racking with judges staring up at you to critique your performance! But its great fun and has definitely increased our power and speed, as well as being great for increasing mental toughness for pressure situations both of which are obviously helpful on the rugby pitch!

You obviously enjoy the physical element of the game?

I do enjoy the physical aspect, theres no better feeling than putting in a big hit to turn a game around (after scoring a try of course!). We use the phrase smashy smashy to get a pumped up about making big tackles and driving players back etc. Its a big part of the game so you have to enjoy it, otherwise you wouldnt last too long on the pitch!

Whats your favourite part of playing rugby?

Theres probably two main reasons why I love this game so much. The first is the challenge of it every game you have to push yourself mentally and physically, and the more you put into it, the more youre going to get out of it. You have to go beyond your comfort zone and really test yourself. Its so different from other sports you could get by in a soccer or basketball match without really ever committing yourself but in rugby you have to commit 100% or youre not going to put your body on the line to make the tackle or break through the gap. When the whistle blows at the end of a match, and youre completely exhausted because youve managed to leave everything on the field, you know youve pushed your limits and have truly tested yourself. The second reason is the friends I have made through the sport. I have met so many amazing people playing both in Canada and in Ireland; most of my closest friends I have made through rugby. The Irish, Leinster and Blackrock teams have been like my adopted family since I moved here and Im lucky to be a part of them.

And your least favourite?

Injuries. It comes with the sport, and Im thankful that Ive only had a few major ones twice tearing my MCL, once separating my AC joint and the usual bumps, bruises and strains along the way. I was lucky to be working with the Orthopedic team last summer when having trouble with my knee so got some free advice from top surgeons - otherwise one of the most valuable people on the team is always the physio!

* first contributed this article to Emerald Rugby Magazine