In our new series, Behind the Player in association with Deloitte, Ulster’s Women players share a little bit about themselves, as well as recommendations for coping during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week, Ulster Rugby spoke to Cooke, Ulster and Ireland prop, Ilse van Staden.
Tell us a little about your rugby pathway to date.
I started playing rugby when I just left school at 17. I was actually playing softball at the time and one of my friends suggested I join her at rugby training for some off-season fitness because in South Africa, softball is a summer sport. I went to training sessions and haven’t looked back since. I stopped playing softball completely about six months later. I started playing for Correctional Services in Pretoria and six months after playing rugby, I got my first provincial call-up for the Blue Bulls and got 109 caps playing for them. In 2011, I met [my wife] Alanagh and came over to Northern Ireland, where I joined Belfast Harlequins before eventually moving to Cooke. I played a bit of Sevens rugby and saw the world but then decided to settle in Northern Ireland with Alanagh. I got my first Ulster cap in 2012, and then the highlight of most sportspeople’s career was getting an international cap which I got for Ireland in 2017. It’s been a really long and hard journey but I’m still playing rugby and enjoying it. I’m really blessed that I’m injury-free.
Who have been your main influences in your rugby career?
When I played for Harlequins in Pretoria, we had a coach called Jan Hannekom. He was also the provincial coach at that stage and the attention to detail that he brought was phenomenal. The attention to detail wasn’t just around how you play, but how you prepare yourself for matches. When I left Harlequins, I went to the University of Pretoria and played for Tukkies [Tuks Rugby Club]. The coach, Riaan van der Merwe was exactly the same. He introduced me to Sevens rugby and that made me able to read the game better. He opened my eyes to not just being a prop who likes to run at things, but to look up and see what’s happening around me.
My dad played provincial rugby for the Eastern Transvaal, and my great-uncle played for the Blue Bulls as well. Rugby is a very cultural thing for my family. All those elements came together to influence me in how I play and how I want to achieve things. Alanagh was of course a big influence in me moving to Northern Ireland.
What barriers have you had to overcome to reach this point?
Women in sport always have the barrier of cost. Personally, in the World Cup in 2017, I put something like 23,000 miles on my car between January and the end of the World Cup in August to meet training demands, going to the gym and going to skills sessions. Skills sessions were hosted in Dublin and I drove down on a Wednesday night for a 45-minute session and driving back up the road, knowing I’d be driving back down on the following Saturday.
As a woman playing rugby, there’s that perception from people that “you must be of a certain persuasion, or your sexuality is determined by the fact that you play rugby.” But really it’s one of those sports in which girls can completely express themselves, regardless of their sexual orientation, their size, where they come from or where they grew up. You can simply be a person who enjoys sports.
What have you been up to in the last few months?
I’m a butcher and I own a biltong company. At Ballylagan Organic Farm where I work, we have been working non-stop. We’ve seen a massive increase in orders for biltong through our online shop. Trying to keep my own family life going – I have a 10-month-old boy who I want to spend as much time as possible with – and trying to keep up with some training have been tough. I’ve slowly built up a gym for myself, starting with resistance bands and now I have a squat rack and proper bar to do the basics. I got a spin bike as well to get in shape which hasn’t been easy while working 12-hour days and focusing on family to then do a workout at 9 or 10 at night when everyone is going to bed!
How do you stay motivated?
For me, it’s very important to prioritise. I set up a plan for how I want to work and prioritise what I believe is the most important. With training, I’m one of those people who needs to get it done. Regardless of whether it’s 11 at night or 3 in the morning, you have to have self-discipline and internal drive to get it done. It’s about what you do and the choices you make when nobody sees you. That’s what keeps you accountable.
What have you been doing to stay fit – any tips you can share?
If you have a plan that you’re going to work with, it’s much easier. It’s like meal prep which is very difficult. As someone who works with food, if you put that little timeslot in, you have to be disciplined to know this is the time you’ve given for this. You might be tired when you get home – just do it and put your boots on or go for a run. At the end of it you can say, “I’ve done it.” Small victories like completing a set at the gym and counting down what is left, that is how I keep going. Rugby is a team sport – it’s not about me carrying ball or scoring tries – it’s about 15 girls and 7 girls on the bench who all come together as one. I need to be able to trust the player next to me in the same way they trust me.
What about any healthy eating advice? What’s the best meal you’ve made at home?
My relationship with food is not that good. I’m an emotional eater and I struggle with food. I have to be disciplined with what I eat otherwise the weight creeps up and you get yourself to a place that isn’t nice. I’ve learned that I need to know if I braai (barbecue), I have to balance nutrients. I would have a very colourful plate and have a good portion of protein with a mix of greens and a small amount of carbs to fuel myself. I’ve got a big sweet tooth and I love my South African desserts – Melktert (milk tart) is amazing.
What do you do to relax?
I like to watch a bit of TV and listening to audiobooks. I fall asleep when I read books so I listen to audiobooks instead. I’ve just finished ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama which is fantastic. I love watching reality-type TV like ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’. I love to spend time at home and go out with my dogs and with family. That’s what I do to relax.
Have you picked up any new skills or hobbies?
I’m not a particularly good baker, but I’ve been experimenting with baking a little. I bake to see how many different things we can make with biltong and biltong powder, so it’s been more about research for me rather than picking up a skill. I’m slightly obsessed with smoking and drying things, so I’ve been playing around with different types of bacon and making my own bresaola. I’ve basically been building on the skills I already have!
I hope to expand our product line a bit more but I need to focus on the biltong for now and making sure we sell it everywhere, not just in Northern Ireland.
What has been the best advice you’ve received?
If you want something really badly, you’re willing to make sacrifices, especially in rugby. The early mornings in December and January are really tough, getting up at 6am to go for a run or go to the gym before the day starts. There have been mornings when I went to Banbridge for the gym with Diesel (Ulster Strength and Conditioning Coach, Paul Heasley) at 7am and drove back to Ballyclare for work. If you really want it, you will do it.
What have been your proudest moments in rugby?
Do you have a pre-match song you always listen to?
I listen to ‘Power’ by Kanye West – it gets the blood flowing. I’m a big fan of Missy Elliott’s ‘Pass That Dutch’ as well. Music gets you ready, whether it’s for the gym or a match.
You’ve already achieved so much but do you have any other rugby aspirations?
If the body holds up, I would like to continue my career with Ulster for another couple of seasons. If I’m lucky enough to get another Irish call-up, that would be the cherry on top. Nobody says no to extra Irish caps. I’d also like to get involved more with youth rugby in the province. I would have to find a way that fits in with my schedule so that might need to wait until after I’ve retired. Don’t worry, I’m not retiring yet! I’m planning to play for at least another 5 or 6 years, or until Ulster decide I need a Zimmer frame – whichever comes first!