Ashleigh Orchard combining parenting with rugby as Ireland bid for Olympic Sevens glory – Football News

Ashleigh Orchard combining parenting with rugby as Ireland bid for Olympic Sevens glory

In December 2022 Ashleigh Orchard’s phone rang in her home in Belfast. David Nucifora, the then IRFU director of rugby was on the line. He had called to see if she would accept a contract to play with the Irish women’s Sevens team.

Her last World Series tournament had been in Dubai in 2018 before she stepped away from the programme, returning four years later to travel to Dubai with the Irish development squad in December of that year, the same month she answered the call.

“David Nucifora rang me to tell me he was going to offer me a contract, would I come back in in January?” she says. “And I was like, ‘yeah’, on the phone. That same night I found out I was pregnant.

“So, I had to go back to David to let him know I couldn’t take the contract. I suppose at that point, I was like, ‘ah this is a new adventure. I’m not going back. I’m not going to an Olympics.’ I didn’t think I was going to go back. I started doing a couch to 5k.”

Arabella Orchard brightened her mother and father Johnny’s world in August of last year. Today she is at the door of the changing room in rugby’s high performance centre in Dublin resting in someone’s arms. She is always somewhere.

This year Arabella has travelled the world accompanying her mother as she successfully played her way back into the Irish squad. She attends the Irish training sessions and is an ever-present figure among the group of women who hope to win a medal at the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.

Arabella’s journey so far has been her mother’s journey and the Irish team’s journey in what has been one of the most encouragingly progressive agreements made in Irish sport. When Ashleigh returned to the Sevens programme in February of this year and played again for the team in the Singapore World Series in May, her daughter went with her.

Mother and child have been integrated into the team environment and in their own way have become part of the elite Olympic programme. In an abrupt move away from the old assumptions that a woman had to pay with her athletic career to have a baby or suffer the emotional stress of removal from her child for long periods at critical times in its development, Arabella has become like an extra body on the squad.

“A big bit of it is the support from the management and the team around,” says Ashleigh. “I didn’t think it was possible. I wasn’t going to be prepared to come down here four days a week. I’m on maternity leave and I’m on maternity leave for a year to be there for her. So, I didn’t want to come down here and leave her at home.

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“I’m still feeding her. I didn’t want to stop that just so I can do this. I very much wanted to put her first and the fact that the IRFU and management team all bought into that … so they were like, ‘bring her down. We’ll put you, Johnny [husband] and Arabella up when we need to down here. And same when we’re away. They can travel with us so you’re able to still have that relationship.’

“As a mum, it’s hard to just leave your child. If I was going away for two weeks and I had to leave her, I was kind of like, ‘I’m not going to go then.’ So, it’s me and her, or its neither of us.”

Formerly Baxter, Ashleigh Orchard has been around rugby camps for a long time. She played in the 2014 and 2017 Rugby World Cups, with the 2014 edition, where she was the youngest player in the Irish squad, also staged in Paris. A fullback and wing, the 32-year-old has competed for Ireland more than 80 times.

Since the Sevens squad for the Olympics was released, players from the 2014 team have been messaging. She is the only one from that group still playing rugby at an elite level. That has been her first triumph, successfully grappling with balancing motherhood with a career that demands peak performance from the body.

When tennis player Serena Williams became a mother, one of her chief anxieties was how she would return to the game, that she might not come back as strong as she was when she left. She spoke about her fear that on return to competing, she might not be able to be both the best mother and best tennis player in the world.

“Everyone has been super helpful,” says Ashleigh. “But there’s an element of you don’t want her to get in the way of other people. And initially at the beginning I was really trying to separate it but then the squad have really taken to her. So, I think she’s actually had a really positive effect on the team.

“They’re able to switch off with her too because she’s always around, which is really nice. They help me out so much with her. It’s got easier because of that. I call them her aunties.

“She went to Singapore, she went to Madrid, yeah. My husband is quite good at trying to take her away if she’s being difficult. Now she’s been very, very good. In Madrid, there was a bit of teeth going on, so we struggled a little bit at night and things.

“In Singapore they got us two rooms. For instance, around the tournament if she’s kicking off or something, he’ll just take her out of the room at night if that’s what needs to happen, so I can perform.”

Now just weeks away from the beginning of the Olympics, Ashleigh will achieve a life’s ambition.

As a child she was obsessed with the Olympic Games. Swimming was her sport and she wanted to become an Olympic swimmer but “was too short and had tiny feet”. As a child she built a website devoted to Britain’s 800m and 1,500m Olympic champion Kelly Holmes winning her gold medals. She doesn’t know why she did that. It’s just how kids play out their fantasies. But now it’s real.

Around 2012 Sevens rugby was starting up and the Olympic carrot was being dangled to attract interest in the sport. She was playing 15s rugby at the time and was attracted. When the team did not qualify for Rio in 2016 or Tokyo 2020, the dream seemed to die.

“Tokyo … I didn’t think it was a possibility for me any more, to be honest. So, this is kind of a complete bonus. Like honestly. I just want to get there.”

Arabella stood for the first time recently, distracted by cameras. Her first wave was in Madrid reacting to the Irish players’ encouragement. This will be her first Olympics. At least her mother thinks it will.

“That conversation is still to be had but I hope so,” she says. Still not on an Irish contract because she’s on maternity leave and didn’t want to “cross boundaries”, she returns to work with Citibank on the Monday after the Olympics. She smiles and flicks her head back towards the training centre and the door Arabella earlier had peeked through.

“I was hoping she’d take her first steps on the indoor pitch there,” she says. “I thought that would be a good one.”

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