Molly Scuffil-McCabe, it’s fair to say, is not afraid to make big decisions. From giving up her first sporting loves of hockey and horse riding to take up rugby to deciding she wanted to be a vet after completing her law degree and then parking that ambition to focus on being a full-time rugby player. She doesn’t run away from challenges – she hugs them.
“You’re only young for a while,” says the native of Lucan in Dublin, who turned 25 last week. “You won’t get this opportunity to play rugby when you’re 50 or 60. I can still practice as a vet, hopefully, when I’m 50 or 60 so this is the priority for me now.”
Mind you, after what she endured when winning her first cap for Ireland’s 15s in last year’s Six Nations, the former sevens player would have been forgiven for opting to return to hockey and horse-riding.
En route to their fourth title in a row, England averaged 56 points in each of their games, so there was no shame in losing to them. That 69-0 defeat in Leicester last April, however, was a demoralising experience for Ireland, having already suffered a rare defeat to Wales and a 40-5 hammering by France.
From her vantage point at full-back, Scuffil-McCabe saw nothing but waves of white shirts coming at her that day, the result, she said at the time, “hard to take”. She dusted herself down, though, got back in the saddle and a week later, this time playing on the wing, she was part of the team that ended the campaign on a winning note with a last-minute victory over Scotland in Belfast.
Since then, and long before, there has been no little discussion about the state of the women’s game in Ireland, and how much of the blame the IRFU needs to take for the steady decline in the international team’s fortunes since that 2013 Grand Slam and second Six Nations title two years later.
The fact that the 32-strong squad selected for the opening fixture of the 2023 campaign, against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, averages fewer than 10 caps (compared with just under 40 for England), with a quarter of the group having never played for their country, is an indication of how much experience has been lost in recent years, either through retirements or the non-selection of players such as Cliodhna Moloney.
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Moloney, who is playing professionally with Exeter Chiefs in the top flight of the game in England, has been exiled since describing Anthony Eddy’s comments on the failure of the team to qualify for the last World Cup as “slurry spreading”, the former director of Irish women’s rugby accused of blaming the players for that debacle rather than the structures – or lack of – around them.
Since then, the IRFU, finding itself falling behind even the Football Association of Ireland in the progressive stakes, tried to up its game by introducing full-time contracts for a clutch of its 15s and sevens female players last year. Not all of them were able to take up those offers, which came in at between €15,000 to €30,000 a year, but Scuffil-McCabe happily accepted hers.
“It’s made a huge difference,” she says. “I worked full time last year during the Six Nations but it was tough. You’re trying to be high performance but then you’re racing away to go and do other bits and bobs.”
“I was a receptionist in a vet clinic so I typically worked 11 to seven, five days a week. Full on. My ultimate aim is to become a veterinary surgeon and I want to go back and become that but that’s on the long finger for now because this opportunity came up.
“The girls who are still combining everything are doing a phenomenal job but it is tough so being able to be professional, for this to be your job, it just makes all the difference.”
She was 15 when Ireland won their one and only Grand Slam back in 2013 but had a close enough connection to the feat, her maths and PE teacher in Lucan Community College which was none other than the captain of that team, Fiona Coghlan.
“I was just at the start of my rugby career but I remember the scenes that day, the celebrations and everything. And I think it sparked the idea that this could be a very successful thing for female athletes,” she says.
Coghlan encouraged her to give rugby a go and here she is, a full-time Irish international.
The only question that is put to her more often than the one about the Coghlan connection is the one about the origins of Scuffil – French or Bavarian, she’s not sure but that double-barrel certainly makes her stand out from the crowd.
She’ll hope to get the chance to stand out too in this Six Nations campaign. The Irish camp, realistically enough, aiming for third spot in the table, conceding that England and France, for now, are uncatchable.
Well, “at least top three,” she says.
After all, she loves a challenge.