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Meet Belfast doctor Claire McLaughlin lining out for Irish rugby

Ahead of the Women's Rugby World Cup which starts on August 9, Una Brankin talks to two Northern Ireland women in the Irish squad - a doctor and an aerospace engineering graduate

No-one is surprised when Claire McLaughlin tells them she's training to be a doctor. But it's a different story when she discloses that she will be playing rugby for Ireland in the upcoming world cup.

"They're always surprised - then they'll say: 'Oh, that's why you've got such big legs'," she laughs. "I'm quite a girly girl; I like to dress up and do my hair and make-up and my nails, although I have to keep them short for rugby and for work.

"People I meet wonder if it's not too rough for me. But I was a tomboy growing up, running around a farm with two brothers, so I got used to a bit of rough and tumble."

From Bushmills, the Irish Rugby International's skills will be required at their full capacity for next month's Women's Rugby World Cup, which is being hosted in Ireland, with matches scheduled for Dublin and Belfast.

Along with fellow Ulster players Ashleigh Baxter and Larissa Muldoon, the Ulster and Cooke (Shaw's Bridge) player is among the squad of 28 who will take on Australia in the UCD Bowl in Dublin on August 9, on the first day of the tournament, which will see the final being staged in Belfast's Kingspan Stadium.

As a person of faith, Claire (25) sees her sporting ability as God-given. Each time she swaps her white coat for her rugby kit, she puts on a wrist tape with the inscription 'AO1' - audience of one. God, in other words.

"It's just to remind me what I'm doing it for," she explains. "I see rugby as a form of worship - I grew up in a church-going household, but it wasn't until my fourth year at university that I needed to make a commitment.

"Everything was going well for me, but there was an emptiness, from not having a personal relationship with God. Life is much more fulfilling now."

She admits that balancing her medical career and her rugby playing is not an easy task. She is "constantly tired" from fitting in her rugby training with long, hectic shifts as a busy house officer, working in general medicine and general surgery.

At present, she's in her first foundation year one at the Mater Hospital, Belfast, having graduated in medicine from Queen's University, Belfast last year, and is considering specialising in sports medicine.

"It is exhausting, but the knowledge that I'm working towards the world cup keeps me going," she says. "On Wednesday, for example, I was up at 5am for running and then went on to a 12-hour shift. It was straight to bed after that, then up again at 5am the next morning for more running.

"It's intense and challenging to fit it all in, and I have to be very organised. I take a multivitamin; I write out my shifts and thankfully I'm able to be flexible with the training, as I can do it in my own time. I have found it difficult training on my own before, but it has worked out quite well this time."

Growing up on a farm in Co Antrim, the future medic didn't develop an interest in sports until she started playing tag rugby, aged 16, at Coleraine High School. She became hooked and joined a women's team in Ballymoney at 18, and went on to earn her first cap with Ulster in her first year at university. Her love of the game was encouraged by her father, John, a beef farmer who has played tug-of-war to UK championship level. He and Claire's mother, Pamela, a teacher, also have two sons, David (28), a London-based actor, and Johnathon (24), a chemical engineer, also based in London.

"Dad played rugby at school and both my brothers were really into it," she recalls. "Dad would bring us to watch the under-19 World Cup games and I vividly remember watching New Zealand play and thinking, 'this is class'. I loved hockey, too, but rugby more.

"The physicality is something that really attracted me to it because in hockey and football I was always a bit too aggressive, so rugby suited me in that way."

She made it onto the Irish squad in 2015 and admits she would play full-time if the pay was right. She hopes to see the gender pay-gap in sport narrowing in her lifetime.

"The gap is huge in rugby - If I was a man, it would be a paid full-time job," she asserts. "But in women's rugby, we don’t have the same following yet, so there’s not the same sponsorship that guys have and the same ticket sales.

“I’d hope women could become professional players in the future, but I think it will be quite a few years before that happens. If I had the opportunity, I’d go for it, as medicine will always be there for the rest of  my life. But I’d have to do something else on the side, to get to use my brain.”

Next year, the talented player plans to take a year out from medicine to focus on rugby and her personal life. Currently single, she finds she has little time for dating.

“I went out with someone for a few weeks a while ago but that’s on hold,” she says. “It’s hard to get any free time and relaxing is something I struggle with. I like to play the piano — I bought a keyboard this year — but I haven’t played in a while.

“I used to play at church and at weddings; I got up to grade eight. I do love catching up with friends, even if it’s just for a coffee or a walk on the beach. They tell me I’m too fussy about men; that they have to tick too many boxes.

“I would like to get married and have a family in the next few years, but that’s all up in the air at the minute.”

She shouldn’t be short of admirers. At five foot eight, she is a perfectly toned size 10, weighing in at 11 stone.

“I’m verging on the heavy side for my height, but it’s all down to muscle,” she explains. “I’ve always eaten healthily and the Irish squad has a good nutritionist to monitor us and to help us balance carbs and protein.

“Being quite tall helps me play centre — you have to be athletic and to have strength and a bit of speed for collisions and evasions. But you don’t have to be butch! It’s a word I hesitate to use. It’s what people expect us to be, but attitudes are changing slightly, thankfully.”

Ashleigh Baxter, aerospace engineering graduate from Castlewellan, plays right wing

At just over five foot four, Ashleigh Baxter is one of the shorter players in the Irish Women's Rugby World Cup Squad team but one of the strongest, at nine stone 10lbs.

"I'm short enough but different parts of the game suit different attributes," she says.

"Being short, there's an opportunity for me to make high tackles - it leaves me able to barrel under."

From Castlewellan, the 25-year-old has risen rapidly through the ranks of Irish Women's rugby since playing Tag rugby at school, Down High, as a youngster and joining Belfast Harlequins, aged 18.

"From the age of five, I always stayed for sports after school," she recalls. "My parents weren't interested in playing sports themselves but Dad would play football with me when I was younger and Mum pushed me into swimming. I played hockey, too."

A graduate of aerospace engineering at Queen's University, Belfast she impressed in her first season with Ulster and Ireland in 2012 and featured on the right wing during the 2013 Grand Slam run.

Ashleigh is full-time with the Women's Rugby World Cup Sevens and is based in Dublin - which means she only gets to see her long-term boyfriend, accountant Johnny Orchard, at weekends.

"He is a bit of a rugby widower - I don't know how he puts up with me," she remarks. "He doesn't play rugby, he prefers squash. We knew each other from our school days so he knew how much I was into sports, and he wasn't surprised when I went into rugby full-time.

"He only lives five minutes from my home in Castlewellan but I'm in Dublin most of the time. I'd like to settle back at home eventually."

Ashleigh was back home this week for the funeral of her grandfather, Harry Baxter. The former dairy farmer passed away at Greenvale nursing home, at 92, having suffered from dementia.

It's the second loss for the Baxter family within nine months. Last November, Ashleigh's brother, Cameron, died after a fall from a log cabin at Greenhill YMCA, where their father, Kenny, is director. "Cameron played rugby at school too, and we'd do body-boarding and kayaking together. I miss him terribly," she says.

"He and Granddad were both very proud of me. It's a pity they're not here to see the World Cup."

Ashleigh's sister, Lyndsay (21), hopes to follow their mother, Rosie (50), into nursing. Their medical knowledge has been prevailed upon when Ashleigh has suffered injuries at her rugby matches.

"My ankle swelled up badly a couple of years ago and when I went for a scan it showed quite a serious ligament injury," she says. "It might give me trouble in later life but I prefer not to think about that now.

"I'm just back from a calf strain. It wasn't painful - it was more frustrating being laid-up. But I've had a few weeks off, so I'm well rested."

The youngest member of the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup squad at 22, Ashleigh was tasked with looking after team mascot, Seamus, during Ireland's campaign in France. She admits she is just as nervous ahead of this, her second World Cup, as she was in 2014.

"I'm definitely apprehensive - the fact that we did well puts more pressure on us this time to do it again," she says.

"I'm in a new position, on the back row, which is another challenge, and we've a lot to do to get out of your group - we've to play France, who have beaten us before, and Australia and Japan, too.

"England took us apart in the end. We just didn't come together for that game and they went on to win, of course. But training has been going well. It has been very intense the last few months."

Unlike the majority of women her age, Ashleigh has to watch that her weight doesn't go down. She has been consulting a nutritionist for the last three years to keep at the optimum heft for the game.

As she says: "Coming up to the competition, I have to be careful to eat enough, to be prepared.

"It's a carb heavy diet, for energy. That's okay when you're working it off, but it's difficult other days."

Ashleigh's ultimate goal would be to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

In the meantime, her laser-like focus is firmly on the World Cup and the Sevens.

"It's great now that the team is in place and you don't have to fight for a spot any more," she concludes.

"We're all competitive but at the same time we all want what's best for the team. It's a real bonus to be picked.

"As for the future, I'd like to keep going but it depends what the body tells you, but there's Shannon Houston, playing at 36.

"I'll continue for as long as I can."

For the Women's Rugby World Cup fixtures and tickets, see www.rwcwomens.com

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