Irish international sensation, Beibhinn Parsons has been taking the challenge of online lectures in her stride while simultaneously playing Six Nations rugby. The 19-year-old from Ballinasloe spoke with The College Tribune about the challenges of playing international rugby while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and going through her first year at University College Dublin.

Parsons made her debut for Ireland against the United States of America in 2016, off the bench, making her the youngest player in history, male or female, to play international rugby for Ireland. Since that historic day, Parsons has amassed a total of eight appearances, most of which in the starting jersey, and added three Six Nations tries to her name.

“It can be challenging,” Parsons said. “My whole international rugby career I’ve been a student, so I am getting quite used to finding that balance of getting your work done, having enough time off and then getting your training done.”

Parsons was a key member of Adam Grigg’s Ireland squad for the Six Nations this year, despite preparing for her leaving certificate at the same time. “I had to get my priorities straight and see what I wanted at the end of the year,” Parsons said. “I wanted to train well, and I wanted to put my hand up for selection, but I also wanted to perform well in my exams.

“I sat down with Griggsy (Ireland head coach Adam Griggs), and Anthony Eddy (Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) Director of Rugby), and they worked out a plan that suited me best,” Parsons continued. “It allowed me to tick all of those boxes and in the end, I only ended up missing one match. You just have to be honest with your coaches and know when enough is enough and when the imbalance comes in, that’s when you have to intervene and make sure you are hitting all of your priorities.”

Beibhinn Parsons 3/10/2020
Ireland Women’s Rugby Squad Headshots, 3/10/2020 Beibhinn Parsons Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie (Inpho/ Irish Rugby)

The challenges of pandemic learning

Although many different things were affected by the first lockdown in March, the different predictions and continuous developments in terms of whether the leaving cert exams would go ahead was particularly worrying to secondary school students. Parsons in particular, who was still in camp with Ireland, had to simply prepare as best she could for any eventuality, due to the uncertainty.

“The goal posts were constantly changing,” Parsons said, “things were being postponed, then cancelled and then there was all this talk. I just had to stop listening to the news completely, because every day there was a different story in, and a different prediction of what might happen. I went ahead as if the leaving cert was going to happen and then either way, I wouldn’t have cut myself short if it was postponed or cancelled; I would have been prepared enough for if it happened.”

Many students are finding it difficult to cope with online learning though, which is something that Parsons has had to deal with as well. She has found the best way that she deals with this is to maintain a semblance of routine; waking up at the same time she would for school, maintaining study hours, and training as a way to step away from the lessons and her laptop.

Ireland vs Scotland 2020
Dorothy Wall and Ellen Murphy of Ireland combine to tackle Jade Konkel of Scotland deep inside Ireland’s half in their Six Nations encounter in February 2020. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

She was also buoyed by the support of her teammates, some of whom either recently went through their own leaving certs, such as Dorothy Wall, a radiography student at UCD herself. One teammate in particular played a major role in helping Parsons pass her leaving cert.

“I can’t thank [my teammates] enough, they were so helpful,” Parsons said. “I did Irish orals with Eimear Considine, she’s an Irish teacher; I was constantly asking them to help me with maths or geography or whatever I was doing at the time. One of things I thought would be the hardest was how the girls would take me leaving early from the Six Nations, but they were amazing, and they were so supportive.”

Now in her first year at UCD, studying Biomedical, Health and Life Sciences, Parsons, like everyone else, has had to deal with not being able to meet with classmates and is struggling to get used to an online learning environment.

“It is strange, it is very strange,” Parsons said. “I am the type of person that would love to go out to a lecture and meet people that way. I don’t really like sitting down all day, looking at a screen. Especially being in first year, we have to make an extra effort to try and meet people in our course through Zoom or group chats and things like that.

“Thankfully my course is very small, there are only 40 people in it, so we are all getting to know each other, and we are all helping each other out with the work and everything. All these online lectures, they are tedious, but at the end of the day you can just shut your laptop down and just switch off for the rest of the day.”

Ireland celebrate beating Scotland
Ireland’s Beibhinn Parsons, left, celebrates her side’s win over Scotland with her teammates, including Sene Naoupu (13). Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

International rugby during a pandemic

Before COVID struck the Six Nations and forced the postponement of the tournaments until September, Parsons was likely to miss out on the tests against England, France and Italy. As it turned out, it was only the England match that she missed, due to the rescheduling of the tournament.

“I was absolutely delighted [to be able to play against Italy],” Parsons said. “Our Irish team set out a goal of three home wins, so being able to contribute to that goal is everything. I really wanted to be a part of that Italy squad, so coming back in there was huge competition for spaces; it was probably the most competitive the squad has ever been.”

The return of Irish legend Claire Molloy to the squad was one of the reasons for this increased competitiveness within the camp. The former Ireland captain, who was part of the team that was the first Irish rugby team ever to beat New Zealand in 2014, had taken a year away from rugby to focus on her medical degree. Despite not playing for almost 18 months, Molloy looked as if she hadn’t missed a day of rugby.

“She is just a bank of knowledge; you love playing with Claire. She will work to death and she is just such a good role model on and off the pitch,” Parsons said. “She ticks every box in terms of her performance, in terms of recovery, she gets it all done, so I love having Claire in the squad.”

A 21-7 victory over Italy would be a welcome return to rugby for all of the players, however it would be short lived. After all attempts were made to get the final Six Nations match of 2020 played, with France volunteering to give up their home game in an attempt to make sure that Ireland would not have to self-isolate for 14 days prior to and after the match, an eventual COVID outbreak in the French squad would call an end to the fixture.

Sene Naoupu (13) of Ireland attempts to tackle Chloe Rollie of Scotland, while Victoria Dabanovich-O’Mahony lines up to make the tackle. Beibhinn Parsons looks to cover in defence. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

“It was a bit of a rollercoaster, France was on, it was off, it was in France, it was in Ireland,” Parsons said. “Then, after all that, hearing that it was cancelled we were a bit disappointed, but we have created an ethos in camp where we take everything week by week. If the goalposts change, we change with it. The World Cup qualifiers have [also] been postponed, so these things happen playing rugby during a pandemic, so we just have to be patient, take these things as they come and be prepared for the time we do get to play these matches.”

Not being able to play, originally because women’s rugby in Ireland is not professional, meaning that the team would not benefit from the same privileges that the men’s team have in terms of COVID regulations, called to light the future for Parsons as both a professional and a rugby player.

“I don’t really want to sacrifice either of them,” Parsons said. “If I could focus on career whilst playing a high level of rugby, I’d love to do that. I haven’t even thought about going over to England, I haven’t really made a decision on that, but it is definitely a possibility and it is something I could look at in the future. Right now, I will definitely stay in Ireland until I get my degree.

“I don’t want to sacrifice either of them, and most of the girls on the squad play rugby and have full time jobs, so seeing that they can do it just kind of reassures me that I can do it as well. Hopefully I will just keep both balls in the air.”

Stephen Kisbey-Green – Co-Editor