Leah Lyons’ commitment to playing rugby union could never be questioned.
Growing up in County Cork, on the banks of River Blackwater, the sport provided an escape from her school life and became her “go-to” pursuit when she needed to let off steam.
“Rugby was my little stress reliever,” Lyons explained.
“If you play rugby it’s a physical game, you’re able to get your anger out, you’re able to deal with your problems that way and that was something massive.”
Introduced to the sport when she was six by her father, the young Lyons would spend hours with her twin brother in their back garden, practising skills.
A prop by trade, that did not stop her scouring YouTube for videos of Jonny Wilkinson and Dan Carter kicking or Jerry Flannery throwing into a lineout before heading out to mimic what she had just seen.
Lyons’ rationale was that she might not be the fittest or quickest member of her team, but if she could master the basics needed for every position then she would be one up on her opposite number.
Confidence in rugby
“I’m not fit but if I can pass a ball 10 metres, if I can put a little kick through, if I can hook or throw, if I can take control, be able to pass off the ground as a nine, be able to distribute the ball, make a good decision, I’d have a better chance at the game,” she said.
In essence, rugby gave Lyons a sanctuary from the worries of her day-to-day life. Initially it provided control, which meant she could take on her bullies, and earn their respect on the pitch.
Latterly it has allowed her to play out her dreams, from the Fermoy Lionesses to Highfield, Munster, and now Harlequins Ladies, while representing Ireland in the Women’s Six Nations and Women’s Rugby World Cup.
“I never knew there was an Ireland women’s team [growing up],” Lyons said, with a smile.
“But I suppose it was always a goal. I always wanted to play at Twickenham, I always wanted to play in the Six Nations, play in a World Cup, win with Ireland, same with representing Munster.
“When you’re a kid you’re like ‘I’m going to play in a green shirt, I’m going to play in a red shirt’.”
Having found her confidence with rugby it would not have been a surprise had the abuse she suffered while playing for her country against Wales in February 2018 hit her harder than most.
Lyons had scored the opening try in a 35-12 Women’s Six Nations win in Dublin but that did not prevent a fan sitting near her parents at Donnybrook from making derogatory remarks about her appearance.
Following the game, and after some contemplation, she decided to post a short note about the incident on her Twitter feed with the caption “ain’t got nothing good to say, say nothing at all”.
Lyons was not braced for the positive reaction her words would induce as she set off to coach at a local school as part of her then role with Munster Rugby.
“I remember working the next day and my phone was absolutely hopping,” she admitted.
“I was teaching kids rugby so I was like ‘I’m going to have to turn this thing off, I can’t have this thing vibrating and ringing in my pocket, these kids want to play’.
“I remember I turned it off and I was at school for about an hour, and I turned my phone back on and nearly had a little meltdown because there was so much happening. I was like ‘OK, just need to leave this’.
“When you don’t expect anything from it, you’re just trying to make awareness of something which isn’t done, I don’t think. Then it kind of blew up massively at home, but it was all support.
Inspiring the young
“I had support from my union, from Ireland and stuff, and from peers and coaches. They kind of went ‘fair play’ because this isn’t done, you know.”
Lyons was deluged by well-wishers in the aftermath of the incident, while a school she was coaching at sent a bus of 30 to Ireland’s next home game to vociferously show their support.
The 24-year-old has been overwhelmed at times by the reaction to her post, and while she has never received an apology or acknowledgment from the perpetrator, she is glad that some good has come out of it.
“That day [my family] went to have a day out watching rugby,” Lyons said.
“They came to watch me, came to watch my friends play rugby. It’s not something they want to hear, it’s not something that whoever this person was [should say].
“If you’re sitting and a kid is behind you and they hear that, these kids are here to watch rugby, these kids are here to watch their idols.
“Leave them have that fun, leave them to have a good experience, a positive experience that goes ‘Oh, I can play rugby’ not ‘This is happening at international level, what happens if I go to a club?’
“For us to make a sport positive, for them to get out, get fit, get healthy, get moving, is a massive thing.”
Lyons insists that her parents would not have told her about the abuse had they not believed she could handle it, and they have been proved correct in that regard.
When her contract with Munster Rugby came to an end last summer, she sent out emails to several Tyrrells Premier 15s clubs eager to progress her playing career.
Harlequins were the first to get in touch, and three days later Lyons packed up her car and headed to the ferry port to start a new life in England.
Her childhood passion for rugby and willingness to master new skills has not left her in Surrey, where she surprised Harlequins joint head coach Gary Street by turning up for kicking practice soon after arriving.
“I wouldn’t be one of those people, I’d usually have to plan it out but I literally just went for it. I was like ‘f*** it’ when am I ever going to get this opportunity again?” Lyons said.
“I suppose for myself I wanted to do it, I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to give myself a new environment to be around, a new environment to learn.”