Giving rugby a ‘try’: Shona Sullivan

Giving rugby a ‘try’: Shona Sullivan

Ulster Rugby’s Communication Executive, Shona Sullivan has been motivated to get her first taste of playing rugby by joining Randalstown Rugby Club’s women’s team for pre-season training, and has shared her experience to encourage other women who might be interested in giving rugby a ‘try’.

My name is Shona and I work at Ulster Rugby as part of the Marketing and Communications team. I have been fanatical about rugby – and more specifically Ulster Rugby – since I was around 13 years old. Although I’ve been a supporter and spectator for almost 20 years, I have never given rugby a go (apart from throwing a ball around with my younger brother in the back garden when I lived with my parents!).

Since joining Ulster Rugby, my love for the game – and club rugby in particular – has only grown. Part of our team’s remit is to help grow the game by promoting participation at grassroots level. I have always been tempted to give rugby a go, but never had the courage to go along to a club, until now. I was keen to put my money where my mouth is – if I’m expected to encourage participation, I better give it a try myself!

At the age of 32, it has very much reached a “now or never” stage, and I thought if I never tried playing the game, I might always regret not giving myself the opportunity. You very rarely regret giving something a go, even if it doesn’t work out. You’re far more likely to regret not trying something out. I’ve also been inspired by the stories of the women in the Ulster squad that we have featured in our ‘Behind the Player’ series, in association with Deloitte. Their dedication and enthusiasm for the game are infectious!

So last week, I decided to take the plunge and head along to Randalstown RFC for their pre-season training. I was lucky to know who the captain, Nicola Sloane was, through my work, so I sent her a message to let her know that I was planning to go. I also know a girl from my gym who played for Randalstown and previously asked if I wanted to come along, so I got in touch with her as well. I sent an email to JK, the Randalstown Women’s Head Coach, to ask about what I needed to wear and bring.

One of the hardest things about starting out in rugby (if you’re starting a little older like me), is not knowing anyone, so it is always a good idea to contact the club to ask for advice or who you can speak to about joining.

If you know anyone who plays at a club near you, reach out to them; I’m sure they would be more than happy to answer any questions or dispel any doubts. They may be able to bring you along, either to pre-season or a ‘Give It A Try’ session.

Several rugby clubs across Ulster have thriving women and girls’ sections, so you won’t have to travel far to find a suitable club. You can use our women and girls’ club finder tool here:

As it was the first week of pre-season, and due to COVID-19 safety protocols, there was no contact, so a gum shield wasn’t needed yet. Trainers are fine to start with (as long as the weather is dry enough), although you can get a pair of boots for around £30 if you’re just starting out. I just wore my gym gear for the first session.

When I arrived, I needn’t have been so nervous. Nicola, the captain immediately greeted me, as did my friend from the gym, and the other women in the group who introduced themselves. Each club will approach pre-season differently, but for us at Randalstown, it was straight into a game of touch rugby. I introduced myself to the game by going in to touch the attacking player by slipping on the wet grass and tripping her up! In a way, I’m nearly glad this happened so early in the training session, because it got my first “fall” out of the way – I’m just sorry to the poor girl I tripped up in the process! I was quickly brought into the thick of the action, being passed the ball and directed by Nicola and the other girls on where to position myself, when to pass and when to take the ball in to ‘contact’. It was admittedly a daunting experience, but I think it was the best way for me to get a feel for the game and an element of competition.

Up next was fitness testing. I’m not sure if too many players actually enjoy this part of training, but it’s an important way to assess your fitness as pre-season progresses, and it helps prepare you for matches as well. For us, the testing took the form of ‘Broncos’, which are a series of shuttle runs that you do for a particular number of sets and you are timed.

Although I’ve been going to the gym for the last three years, I have never been a runner and did find the ‘Broncos’ incredibly challenging, but the other women were constantly shouting encouragement to keep me going, and JK the coach ran alongside me on my last length to get me over the line. At one point, I genuinely thought I wouldn’t be able to finish, but I dug deep and the encouragement I got really spurred me on too.

We finished the night with another game of touch, with different challenges to mix things up a little, like having to pass the ball twice before getting touched to play a more expansive game, or the defending team having to do a down-up (drop onto your belly and get up) once they ‘touch’ the attacking player. JK and the other coaches were really keen to keep it fun while working on our handling skills and fitness.

After an hour and over 1,000 calories burned, the first training session was over and I survived – just about! We ended with a little team talk and some feedback from the coach, as well as an outline of what the plan is for the next week. If COVID-19 safety protocols allow, we will be introducing some contact work using tackle bags to develop safe tackling techniques ahead of full contact.

If you’re thinking about taking rugby up, get in touch with your local club to see if they’re looking for any newcomers. The women and girls’ game is growing at an incredible rate, and so most, if not all clubs with women’s sections will be delighted to have new players on board.